Cubs

Jeff Samardzija will bring the heat if Cubs and Giants meet in October

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Jeff Samardzija will bring the heat if Cubs and Giants meet in October

MESA, Ariz. — Picture Jeff Samardzija wearing black and orange for a playoff start at Wrigley Field and you get a good idea of what a rivalry with the San Francisco Giants could become.

Madison Bumgarner vs. Jason Heyward already felt like the kind of overreaction/misunderstanding the Cubs could be bringing upon themselves this year.

Joe Maddon unveiled his new “Embrace The Target” T-shirt on Saturday morning, less than 48 hours after Bumgarner and Heyward almost sparked a bench-clearing incident in the middle of a Cactus League game. The Cubs manager posed for pictures with a bull’s-eye literally on his chest.

Even if that’s for charity — and baseball does need so much more personality and the Cubs spent their free-agent money logically in an irrational market — it’s not going to stop other teams and opposing fans from noticing how Camp Maddon is generating all this hype.

Bumgarner — a three-time World Series winner — suspected Dexter Fowler had been tipping pitches to Heyward, who signed the biggest contract in franchise history this winter (eight years and $184 million guaranteed).

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“If you’re talking to your guy on second base after you get out,” Samardzija said, “then that’s going to bring a lot of things upon yourself, regardless of what the rhetoric is, no matter who you’re playing.”

Samardzija didn’t come close to rejoining the Wrigleyville circus, not when the Cubs wanted to do a high-dollar, short-term, prove-it deal that would have allowed him to work with pitching coach Chris Bosio and hit the free-agent market again after a disappointing season with the White Sox.

The Giants didn’t even make the highest offer at five years, $90 million, but Samardzija had bet on himself long enough and wanted to go to a world-class city, a win-now organization and a pitcher-friendly ballpark.

Samardzija returned to Sloan Park on Saturday afternoon and got into a rhythm, going six innings during a 5-2 win and giving up a home run to Addison Russell, the young shortstop the Cubs acquired from the Oakland A’s in that 2014 Fourth of July blockbuster.

“That’s the game we play,” Samardzija said. “We understand where we’re at with service time and where we’re at with contracts and what the organization is looking to do.

“You just hope that 20 years from now, they’re talking about: ‘Hey, they got traded for a guy that’s pretty good.’ Instead of: ‘Well, that didn’t work out.’

“Addison looks like a good dude. He plays hard. And when you (go) to the A’s organization, usually you get some gamers from over there, too.”

[MORE: Cubs see Trevor Cahill as the Ben Zobrist in their bullpen]

Samardzija understood where Theo Epstein was coming from and certainly noticed some of the spending restrictions placed upon the baseball-operations department during the rebuilding years.

“It was a risky plan,” Samardzija said. “But it worked out. Let’s not forget about the guys they added, too. I understand the prospects got a lot of attention. But you add a guy like Jon Lester, who I know personally. Miguel Montero — having a guy (like him) behind the plate is so key. I can’t even stress to you enough how important it is to have a veteran guy back there.

“And then what Bosio has done with some of the pitchers (has) been amazing.”

Samardzija traveled to Chicago and met with Epstein for drinks at a Southport Corridor bar before signing with San Francisco. A reporter asked Samardzija if he had stayed in contact with former teammates like Anthony Rizzo during the free-agent process.

“Yeah, a little bit here and there,” Samardzija said. “But a baseball offseason, man, you don’t really talk to these guys. You’ve seen enough of them throughout the year, heard enough of them throughout the year, the last thing you want to do is waste any days in December talking to Rizzo.”

[RELATED: Decision time coming for Victorino, Ramirez, Candelario]

Samardzija laughed: “I like to take my time. When the season starts, I’ll see him enough and talk to him enough throughout the year. That’s it. You got to space that time out.”

Seeing the Cubs and Giants in October would be great theater. After playing football at Notre Dame, living through the hype in Chicago and listening to all the trade rumors, Samardzija knows all about embracing the target.

“You show up every day and do your job, no matter what the lineup is,” Samardzija said. “Because you know even a team that’s under .500 and not in the mix — if they’re playing the Cubs on WGN — that’s going to be their big game of the month.

“They’re going to come out swinging. That’s just the way it is when you’re up top. Teams are gunning for you.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”