Cubs

Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

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Samardzija, Russell closing out solid seasons

Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011
Posted: 12:54 p.m.

By Tony Andracki
CSNChicago.com

The Cubs didnt know what they were going to get from Jeff Samardzija. At 26, he was out of minor-league options and pitching for his future.

With little more than a week left in the season, Samardzija leads all major-league relievers with 86.2 innings, a sign hes earned the trust of the men at the top step of the Cubs dugout.

The best part about relieving is you get to pitch a lot, Samardzija said. I know the more I work, the better I am. Under Lou (Piniella), if you werent pitching that great, you could be sitting around for a week, eight days. And I know for me, thats not the best situation.

Samardzija owns a 7-4 record and a 3.01 ERA this year while averaging a strikeout an inning and holding opponents to a .194 average, the best mark on the team. In a disappointing season, the emergence of the bullpen has been a bright spot.

Hes a big, strong guy, and hes come on like gangbusters, Cubs manager Mike Quade said.

James Russell also began the season as question mark, and it took awhile before his role was defined. Once Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner went down with arm injuries during the first week of the season, Russell was thrust into the starting rotation.

There he posted a 9.33 ERA and took the loss in all five starts as opponents hit .381 against him. But as a reliever, the 25-year-old southpaw has seen much more success, compiling a 2.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 46.1 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .243 batting average.

Ive just been more consistent with my pitches, Russell said. If I make a mistake, I make sure its not over the middle of the plate and it doesnt get crushed.

Russell laughed because hes established himself in a bullpen that should again feature Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol in 2012. Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs rank 11th in the MLB with a 3.59 bullpen ERA, a real asset considering the relievers have pitched the sixth most innings in the league. (Theyre also tied for fifth in the majors with 23 blown saves.)

Samardzija and Russell have picked up good habits from the veterans, observing how they go about their business. Russell also consults his dad, Jeff, a former major-league reliever who saved 186 games across 14 seasons.

The two have banded together, playing long toss and keeping an eye out for each other. When one starts slacking off, the other picks him up and gets him back on track.

Since were going into the game around the same time, we can kind of keep our schedules the same, Samardzija said. Its a day-to-day understanding of where you need to be. When you get out of that comfort zone, thats when things start going awry. Weve been able to stick together and have each others backs.

The work has paid off. As the summer wore on, the two earned Quades trust and found themselves in big-game situations more and more.

Jeff and I have been throwing pretty good out of the bullpen, Russell said. I love it. I like that theyre putting us in tighter situations and relying on us a lot more.

Samardzija boasts a 1.83 ERA in his last 40 outings. Russell carries a 2.38 ERA over his last 34 innings.

We had some new guys step up and really show what theyre capable of doing, Wood said. It was fun watching them get better and have success and go out and dominate at times.

Russell and Samardzija are both under team control for the 2012 season. What their roles become depends on the next regime, though Samardzija clearly has his sights set on a rotation spot. Either way, both young guns figure to be a prominent part of next years Cubs.

Behind a refined approach, Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start this spring

Behind a refined approach, Albert Almora Jr. is off to a hot start this spring

The Cubs have only played three spring training games, and it’s dangerous to use spring results to predict regular season successes/failures. Still, it’s okay to acknowledge Albert Almora Jr.’s hot start in camp.

In two games, Almora is 4-for-4 with a walk, double, home run, four RBIs, and four runs scored. That line is essentially equivalent to a single game in the regular season and could be turned upside down by the end of the week. But it’s a start for the 25-year-old who’s struggled immensely at the plate for the last season-and-a-half at the plate.

In his last 177 games (dating back to the second half of 2018), Almora holds a .235/.270/.347 slash line. The advanced stats paint an uglier picture: 58 wRC+, .261 wOBA and 52.2 percent groundball rate.

Last season was the most challenging of Almora’s young career. He hit .236/.271/.381 in 130 games with a 64 wRC+, .271 wOBA, -0.7 fWAR (all career worsts). On top of that, he was involved in a heartbreaking moment early in the season; an Almora foul ball struck a young girl at Minute Maid Park during a Cubs-Astros game in May.

Almora recently refused to blame his 2019 offensive woes on that incident, though it obviously played a part. He did admit he was in a bad place mentally and used this winter to decompress. Almora also used it to make some adjustments to his swing and the changes are clear as day:

Pre-2020:

2020:

As MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian notes, Almora is now more upright in the box and his stance is more closed. His leg kick is less defined, and he’s rotating his front leg far less than previous seasons. In short, he’s more direct to his swing and has more time to react in the box because he cut out a lot of his pre-swing movements.

Almora said Monday he’s far from where he wants to be, pointing out the MLB season is a 200-day marathon. It’s too early to tell whether his simplified approach leads to sustainable success.

Small sample size be damned, Almora’s made noticeable adjustments. That’s the first step in his mission to get back on track offensively.

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Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

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USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here.