David DeJesus doesn’t wake up thinking he escaped from Cubbie prison.
The first free agent signed by the Theo Epstein administration knew the feeling, but he laughed off Matt Garza’s running-out-of-hope messages to Jeff Samardzija: “Pitch your way out of there.”
DeJesus is enjoying the sunshine with the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s most-efficient organization, and life inside Joe Maddon’s free-spirited clubhouse. DeJesus played the good soldier at Clark and Addison, enduring 101 losses in 2012 and getting sprung before last year’s last-place finish.
“I took it as that was my job,” DeJesus said. “My job was to play for the Cubs. I’m honored to be a baseball player in the major leagues. I understand where (Garza’s) coming from. But in my opinion, I’m blessed to be able to play in a place where we get to be watched all over the U.S., all over the world.
“It’s a great market. People see you. People care about the Cubs.”
DeJesus became a billboard for The Cubs Way when he signed a two-year, $10 million deal just after Thanksgiving 2011. He’s someone who would see pitches and grind out at-bats, an athletic defender who could play all over the outfield, a good clubhouse guy. Instead of wasting money on fading superstars, the mid-level value free agent would become part of The Plan.
But as DeJesus stood inside U.S. Cellular Field’s visiting clubhouse on Monday afternoon, the talent around the room cost more than what the Cubs are spending for their on-field product. Take away the Alfonso Soriano money, and the Cubs come in just under $75 million, while the Rays are just above $82 million, according to the USA TODAY salary database.
DeJesus became another symbol of the organization’s cost-cutting last summer, when the Washington Nationals claimed him on waivers. The Cubs sold a widely respected veteran for one dollar, saving around $2.5 million between the balance of his 2013 salary and the buyout for a 2014 club option.
Ready or not, it’s put so much focus on Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and the next wave of prospects, creating some entitlement and a less-than-ideal environment for developing young players.
DeJesus still believes in Castro and Rizzo, mentioning Dale Sveum’s threat to send them to Triple-A Iowa last April, a motivational ploy Epstein’s front office viewed as a tactical mistake, using it as part of the justification to fire the manager.
“I see big things for them,” DeJesus said. “They had a tough year last year. Both guys had the Triple-A thing in the back of their brains and stuff like that. It’s tough to play when you’re thinking about who knows what’s going on behind you.
“But I feel like they moved past it well. I know Starlin’s off to a good start. Rizzo’s doing well. It’s just a matter of gaining their confidence, gaining their experience and just letting them go play.”
The Cubs woke up on Tuesday in last place in the National League Central with an 8-16 record, though Castro (.292 average) and Rizzo (.816 OPS) appear to be back on track. The franchise has invested roughly $100 million in those two core players.
“Especially Starlin is a guy where you let him play,” DeJesus said. “Let his skills go out there and shine. With Rizz, you have to harness him in. That was my job — harnessing him in — but he’s going to be a great player, too.
“Those guys work hard, so they’ll be OK. When you’re working hard, you’re showing that you’re putting in the time. Your teammates see that you care.”
His wife — @KimDeJesus9 — had spent the hours leading up to the July 31 deadline entertaining everyone with updates through Twitter, Vine and Instagram, dealing with the trade rumors by drinking champagne.
Their family still owns a house in Chicago’s western suburbs, even after all the moving last August. The Nationals happened to be at Wrigley Field on Aug. 19, so DeJesus walked over to the visiting side. Four days later, the Nationals then flipped him to the Rays for an A-ball pitcher.
After waiting for rebuilding to pay off with the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s, DeJesus finally made the playoffs for the first time last season and stayed in Tampa Bay with a two-year, $10.5 million deal that contains a club option for 2016.
Rizzo followed DeJesus around, while Castro shadowed Soriano. DeJesus, 34, didn’t want to be viewed as a babysitter and reminded everyone that he can still play the game, but there are reasons why he has more than 10 years in the big leagues. Prison or not, something’s missing inside the Cubs clubhouse.
“It’s hard,” DeJesus said. “Young guys have to follow leadership. I followed Mike Sweeney. You learn how to be a professional at that time. When they keep losing those guys, it’s going to be tougher. They’re going to have to grow up real quickly.”