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.

Theo Epstein tops Fortune's list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders

Theo Epstein tops Fortune's list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders

The Cubs keep raking in the accolades.

Theo Epstein is the latest to be honored, with Fortune naming the Cubs president of baseball operations No. 1 on the newly-released list of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders.

Epstein — the architect of the Cubs team that ended a 108-year championship drought — beat out such names as Pope Francis, John McCain, LeBron James and Joe Biden.

Fellow Chicagoan and White Sox ambassador Chance the Rapper also made the list at No. 46.

The rationale for Epstein includes:

In his book The Cubs Way, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci details the five-year rebuilding plan that led to the team’s victory. The Cubs owe their success to a concatenation of different leadership styles, from the affable patience of owner Tom Ricketts to the innovative eccentricity of manager Joe Maddon. But most important of all was the evolution of club president Theo Epstein, the wunderkind executive who realized he would need to grow as a leader in order to replicate in Chicago the success he’d had with the Boston Red Sox. In the following passages, Verducci describes how a deeper understanding of important human qualities among his players—the character, discipline, and chemistry that turn skilled athletes into leaders—­enabled Epstein to engineer one of the most remarkable turnarounds in sports.

For more on why Epstein and the Cubs topped the list, head to Fortune.com.

Epstein had a classic reaction to the honor, texting ESPN's Buster Olney:

"Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house. That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball - a pastime involving a lot of chance. If Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I'm not even the best leader in our organization; our players are."

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

Now what? Jon Lester driven to deliver more World Series titles to Chicago

MESA, Ariz. — Now what? Ryan Dempster believes these Cubs are young enough, hungry enough and talented enough to become the first group to win back-to-back World Series since the three-peat New York Yankees built a dynasty with titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000.

But Dempster already understands the expectations at Wrigley Field this season, especially after pitching on disappointing Cubs teams that got swept out of the playoffs and working as a special assistant in Theo Epstein's front office.

"Nothing can top it," Dempster said. "You can win 162 games and sweep everybody in the playoffs and it won't be as exciting for people, other than maybe the guys playing it."

That's why Jon Lester isn't putting up the "Mission Accomplished" banner at his locker, even though the Cubs had the parade down Michigan Avenue in mind when they gave him the biggest contract in franchise history at the time. Dempster — who also earned a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox — had given Lester a scouting report as the Cubs went all-out in their pursuit of the big-game lefty.

There are still four years left on Lester's $155 million megadeal. It has been less than five months since the Cubs finally won the World Series and unleashed an epic celebration.

"Now the hard part is you don't get complacent," Lester said Wednesday after throwing six innings against an Oakland A's minor-league squad at the Sloan Park complex. "I talk about these young guys — that's where that helps. Even though you've accomplished things personally, you still want these guys to accomplish things.

"That's where that drive still gets you. You don't want to let your teammates down. You still want to be accountable for what you do. And that means showing up and doing your work in between starts and in the offseason."

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Lester believed so much in Epstein's vision, the pipeline of talent about to burst and the lure of Chicago that he signed with a last-place team. The Cubs needed a symbol to show they were serious about winning, a clubhouse tone-setter and an anchor for their rotation.

A new comfort level in Year 2 of that contract helped explain how Lester performed as an All Star, a Cy Young Award finalist and the National League Championship Series co-MVP. But Lester wants to make sure that the Cubs don't get too comfortable — or feel like they're playing with house money.

"You enjoy that, you learn from it," Lester said. "The biggest thing is not getting complacent with yourself and with your teammates. That's what drives me, making sure I'm prepared to pitch.

"I'm called upon every five days, and I have to be there. That's where that goal of 30 starts and 200 innings comes into play. I feel like if I do that, then I've done my job, for my teammates and this organization.

"The championships and the World Series — that's stuff you can't predict. It's stuff you strive to do every single year. So that's all we're going to focus on again. Our team goal again is to win a World Series."