Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads

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Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads

Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011Posted: 3:05 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija might get more media opportunities than anyone else on the fringes of a major-league roster. There is the football back story, and the probability that you either love or hate Notre Dame.

Samardzija, who has a goatee and long hair that goes to the back of his neck, is also a pretty approachable dude. So reporters will ask him about his preference: Starter or reliever? They will wonder how it felt to watch the Cubs bring up a pitcher from Triple-A Iowa 14 different times between his demotion last April and his September call-up.

Yet Samardzija has never really popped off about the way hes been handled by the organization.

Bury it, he said. Thats kind of just my personality. Im not gonna sit and (complain) about things that happened in the past. Thats not what I do. Its not our jobs here to worry about that. Im really not worried about any of that stuff.

Of course, you could also argue that the 26-year-old right-hander has nothing to complain about. The Cubs, after all, gave him a five-year, 10 million major-league contract to prevent him from jumping to the NFL. That will expire at seasons end, though the Cubs have club options for 2012 and 2013.

Samardzija, who is out of minor-league options, appears ticketed for the bullpen. He went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 35 games 15 starts at Iowa in 2010, another supposed pivotal year for him. He could become the long man.

All I can do is be ready to pitch (and) see where the pieces fall, he said. A lot of things (can) change day-to-day in baseball, not to mention a month, a month-and-a-half. I feel great and just ready to go.

In one week, the Cubs will play their first exhibition game at HoHoKam Park and the rotation will start to spin. Forget the debate about who starts Opening Day Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are booked for April 1-3.

The real intrigue is who emerges as the fourth and fifth starters. They started throwing live batting practice for the first time on Sunday at Fitch Park, in the middle of a driving rainstorm. It felt as chilly as an early-season game at Wrigley Field.

Carlos Silva is already on record saying that he thinks he deserves one spot. Randy Wells has made 59 starts for the Cubs across the past two seasons. The organization has great faith in Andrew Cashner and his ability to develop into a front-line starter.

Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer have long resumes that detail more than 17 years of major-league service time combined. But they are working on minor-league deals.

James Russell and Casey Coleman are two pitchers drafted and developed by the organization. They, like Samardzija across the past three years, could be stuck between Chicago and Iowa, for reasons beyond their control.

Russell is being stretched out because the Cubs do not have any other left-handed options for the rotation. At 25, he wants to start, and says he has no worries about leaving the relief role he grew into last year. What if hes ready, but theres no room?

Youre not only talking about the ballclub, but his future, manager Mike Quade said. (Do) you scrap it? Its just an important decision, both for the organization and for the kids mindset. Russell will do whatever we ask. Thats just the way he is. And thats why you feel OK doing this.

Russell could still be in play for a bullpen spot.

I want to start in the big leagues, Russell said. I just figured that was my calling. But if they want to keep me in the bullpen, I have no problem with it. I will be the long man. Ill come out, eat innings up and do whatever. I want to be playing for the Cubs.

Coleman won Quades first game as a big-league manager and went 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight starts for the Cubs last season. The 23-year-old walked into the room more certain of himself, while trying not to make any waves.

Youre a lot more comfortable, but not to the point where youre trying to act like youre established, Coleman said. It does a lot for your confidence. But at the same time you still have to work hard and treat it like: Im going to keep my mouth shut and be here on time and thats it.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

For Cubs, winter meetings will be all about the hunt for pitching 

As the Cubs prepare for the winter meetings outside Washington, D.C., their messaging might as well be: It’s the pitching, stupid.

This is an arms race that will never end, the Cubs trying to defend their first World Series title in 108 years, build out a bullpen that looked pretty thin by November and target the kind of young starter who could help anchor their rotation for years to come, ensuring Wrigleyville remains baseball’s biggest party.

The Cubs signed Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million contract on Friday, placing a small bet on a lefty specialist who spent parts of last season on the Triple-A level but made a good enough impression during his 13-plus innings with the Baltimore Orioles.

As executives, scouts, agents and reporters begin to flood into National Harbor on Sunday, the Cubs will intensify their search for pitching, everything from headliners to insurance policies to prospects.

“That’s been the significant bulk of our efforts,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “It’s definitely not going to be through lack of trying on our part to make that kind of deal. That’s now. That’s at the deadline.”  

The Cubs are preparing for Opening Day 2018, when Jake Arrieta will probably be in a different uniform after signing his megadeal, John Lackey might be kicking back in Texas and enjoying retirement and Jon Lester will be 34 years old with maybe 2,300 innings on his odometer. 

The Cubs have unwavering faith in their pitching infrastructure at the major-league level, from the scouting and analytic perspectives that identified the right sign-and-flip deals during the rebuilding years to the coaching staff that helped mold Kyle Hendricks into a Cy Young Award finalist and a World Series Game 7 starter.

Mike Montgomery notched the final out against the Cleveland Indians and the Cubs see him as their next big project. The lefty checks so many of their boxes, from age (27) to size (6-foot-5) to pedigree (former first-round pick/top prospect) to the change-of-scenery confidence boost/mental reset.

Forget about the White Sox trading Chris Sale to the North Side and don’t just think about obvious names or trade partners. Maybe it’s making a deal for a guy you never heard of before and sifting through the non-tender bin. (As expected, the Cubs offered contracts to arbitration-eligible pitchers Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm before Friday’s deadline. Their 40-man roster stands at 35 after non-tendering lefties Gerardo Concepcion and Zac Rosscup, right-hander Conor Mullee and infielder Christian Villanueva.)

Remember how team president Theo Epstein framed the Montgomery trade with the Seattle Mariners this summer – comparing him to All-Star reliever Andrew Miller – and that gives you an idea of how they can address their pitching deficit this winter. 

“If your scouts do a good job of identifying the guys who are trending in the right direction – and you’re willing to take a shot – sometimes there’s a big payoff at the end,” Epstein said.   

While the Cubs did Jason Hammel a favor by cutting him loose and allowing him to explore the market as one of the best pitchers in an extremely weak class of free agents, Montgomery has only 23 big-league starts on his resume. 

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

The Cubs had five starters make at least 29 starts this year, while four starters accounted for 30-plus starts in 2015, a remarkable run that led to 200 wins.

“As we’ve talked about so many times,” Hoyer said, “we do have an imbalance in our organization – hitting vs. pitching – and we’re trying to make sure we can accumulate as much pitching depth as possible. 

“We were very healthy this year, which was wonderful and a big part of why we won the World Series. I don’t think you can always count on that kind of health every single year. Building up a reservoir of depth – preferably guys you can option (to the minors) – is something (we’re trying) to accomplish.”  

The Cubs have Jorge Soler stuck in a crowded outfield plus the types of interesting prospects who appear to be blocked – catcher Victor Caratini, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, infielder/outfielder Ian Happ – to make relatively painless trades for pitching (if not the kind of blockbuster deal that dominates coverage of the winter meetings).

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil getting a four-year, $30.5 million deal and no-trade protection from the St. Louis Cardinals became another sign of how shallow this free-agent pool is for starting pitchers and a reflection of a postseason where the bullpen became a major storyline.

The idea of Kenley Jansen intrigues the Cubs – and Aroldis Chapman made a favorable impression during his three-plus months with the team – but Epstein’s front office already made the major upgrades for 2017 by spending nearly $290 million on free agents after the 2015 playoff run. Philosophically, the Cubs also see smarter long-term investments than trying to win a bidding war for a guy who might throw 70 innings a year. 

With that in mind, the Cubs could get creative and have looked at free agent Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer with the Kansas City Royals who didn’t pitch this year after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.  

Remember that Chapman left the New York Yankees and joined a team that had a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. If Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. can’t handle the late shifts, then the Cubs could always go out and trade for another closer in the middle of a pennant race.    

The Cubs have the luxuries of time, zero pressure from ownership, their fan base or the Chicago media and a stacked, American League-style lineup. 

“Right now, we could go play from an offensive standpoint and feel very good about our group,” Hoyer said. “We’re going to still continue to look to improve the depth in our bullpen, improve the depth in our starting rotation. Those are things that probably never go away. You probably never stop trying to build that depth.” 

What will LeBron James wear to pay up on Cubs World Series bet with Dwyane Wade?

What will LeBron James wear to pay up on Cubs World Series bet with Dwyane Wade?

LeBron James is coming to town, and he will be all decked out in Cubs gear.

The Cavs are in Chicago to take on the Bulls Friday night at the United Center and it's time for LeBron to pay up on his World Series bet with Dwyane Wade.

The two former teammates made the wager during the World Series as LeBron's hometown Indians took on Wade's hometown Cubs, with the loser wearing the winning baseball team's gear when they showed up in the opposing city. This is LeBron's first trip to Chicago this season.

Wade and LeBron already acknowledged they're having fun with this and have a whole spectacle planned with a national TV audience.

LeBron told the Akron Beacon Journal he's not going to try to take the easy way out and just toss on a Cubs jersey. He is planning socks, hat, pants and possibly more. But he won't wear cleats or bring a glove with him.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your World Series champions gear right here]

When the Cubs won it all a month ago Friday, Wade posted an Instagram photo of LeBron wearing a Cubs uniform:

And ESPN had a cutout of LeBron sporting a No. 23 Cubs road gray jersey outside the United Center Friday morning:

CSN Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill wonders whether LeBron will don signature Joe Maddon glasses, too.

This is gonna be fun, you guys.