Cubs will put Samardzija front and center


Cubs will put Samardzija front and center

Theo Epsteins first impression of Jeff Samardzija: Man on a mission.

The Cubs will be putting Samardzija front and center as they contemplate life after Ryan Dempster, figure out what to do with Matt Garza and go to the next phase of their rebuilding project at Clark and Addison.

The Cubs are back in Arizona, which Samardzija found to be the perfect distraction-free zone last offseason. He moved back into his place near the teams complex in Mesa, to do all the things he outlined for Epstein when he made his pitch to be in the rotation.

When Samardzija takes the ball Friday night against the Diamondbacks, he will have accounted for 78 innings, or 10 less than he threw last season out of the bullpen. This is what he wanted all along, why he went out to the desert.

I actually kind of feel stronger than I did in the beginning, to tell you the truth, Samardzija said. I really feel like Im hitting that midseason point where the arm really starts coming along, and all that work youve done in the offseason starts really kicking in right about now.

Samardzija is 5-5 with a 4.04 ERA and 78 strikeouts against 28 walks. Epstein believes the art will be in finding the consistency, because Samardzija is so athletically gifted.

As advertised, Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. Great arm.

Samardzija is 27, while Garza is 28, and together they are two big personalities who could front a rotation with ideas about October.

Garza says hed only be worried if his name wasnt in trade rumors, that Chicago would be a great place for his kids to grow up, but ultimately Ill pitch on the freaking moon.

Garza wont be a free agent until after the 2013 season. His main point is that its out of his control. But couldnt he go to the Cubs and try to make a commitment?

The conversations of that nature between the player and the club are always best kept confidential, Epstein said. Weve had an ongoing dialogue about a number of things. We have an open-door policy with any of our players about anything, on the field or off the field, business or personal.

Last offseason, Samardzija got an audience with the front office at a time when several other now ex-Cubs say they got nothing but silence.

The new regime change meant a lot to Samardzija, which is ironic, because the University of Notre Dame football star had become a signature signinglightning rod for the Jim Hendry administration.

It wasnt hard to interpret Samardzijas state of mind in spring training, when he cut off a reporter wondering what if the rotation thing doesnt work out: The worst question Ive ever heard.

And Samardzija turned around another question from a Boston writer who had traveled to Arizona to work on an Epstein profile, saying he wasnt a big East Coast fan, that he was a big Hendry guy and the new bosses would have big shoes to fill.

The biggest thing that helped us was the makeup, said assistant general manager Randy Bush. As he struggled to figure it out at the major-league level, the one thing that we knew was how tough he is, and how competitive he is, and I think that has helped him transition into what hes becoming.

Bush has watched Samardzija since Notre Dame, where his former University of New Orleans teammate, Paul Mainieri, used to be the baseball coach before moving on to Louisiana State University.

Bush, who was hired by Hendry, speaks with authority, because he has institutional memory and played on two World Series winners with the Minnesota Twins, an organization known for player development.

(Samardzijas) not going to make the same mistakes over and over again, Bush said. Hes just going to learn. Physically, hes got everything you look for to be that kind of guy you can hopefully tee up there for 200 innings a year.

Everyone talked about the 85 mph splitter that got away from Samardzija and smashed into Paul Konerkos face last month at Wrigley Field. But the day after, Bush spoke with Samardzija about the previous at-bat, the 95 mph, 1-0 fastball he left middle in for Konerko, which was crushed for a two-run homer that helped lift the White Sox.

I think a lot of the struggles (Jeff) went through the last few years was (just because) hes still young as a pitcher, Bush said. I remember shaking my head thinking: Why would you try to beat Konerko in there? The risk-reward just isnt there. And I (told him) those kind of things, youre just going to learn.

Samardzija was strong enough to play Sundays in the NFL, and the thought is that he will pitch somewhere around 180 innings this season, though theres not a hard limit.

Or, as manager Dale Sveum said: Were not going to kill him, put it that way. So theres going to be another interesting conversation.

I understand that they have a plan with me, (which) is fine, Samardzija said. I would like to pitch every fifth day, no matter what. I think I can physically do it and I handle it, but its not my call. So Im going to pitch when they tell me to pitch, and when I go out there, Im going to give it everything I have and lay it all out there.

Under Center Podcast: Saying bye to Elliott Fry


Under Center Podcast: Saying bye to Elliott Fry

On this episode of the Under Center Podcast, J.J. Stankevitz is joined by John "Moon" Mullin. To start, Moon takes a moment to remember Cedric Benson, who died in a motorcycle accident on Saturday night (00:30). Then, the guys discuss the Bears' surprise announcement that they released Elliott Fry, leaving Eddy Pineiro as the only kicker on the roster (05:40).

The guys toss to highlights from Matt Nagy's press conference on Sunday morning where he explains why the Bears decided to cut Fry now, how they think the move will help Pineiro and whether the competition is officially closed (07:55).

Finally, J.J. explains why the end of the kicking competition was just like the end of the Bachelorette (12:10), and which kickers on other teams the Bears may still have their eyes on in the upcoming preseason games (16:40).

Listen to the entire episode here or in the embedded player below.

Under Center Podcast


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Death of former Bears RB Cedric Benson a blow – and a reminder

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Death of former Bears RB Cedric Benson a blow – and a reminder

Getting the news that Cedric Benson had died last night in a motorcycle accident was a blow on Sunday. The former Bears running back and a passenger were killed when the bike they were riding collided with a minivan in Austin, Tex. As former Bears defensive end and Benson teammate Adewale Ogunleye tweeted Sunday, “What the hell is going on? The Bad news wont stop.”

Personally, this sort of thing hits hard. The passing of receivers coach Darryl Drake last week, former 1994 first-rounder John Thierry dying last November – of a heart attack at age 46 – Rashaan Salaam committing suicide in December 2016, and now Ced. That’s too many good dying young.

And yet even as the Benson news was sinking in, Bears beat colleague Rich Campbell over at the Tribune was celebrating the birth of his daughter. Not sure why that seems so striking, maybe just something about the circle of life, or just how there’s a spot of sunshine somewhere. 

As in so many of these things, the Ced death sparks memories, and in this case, good ones. Which may seem a bit unlikely, since Ced was one of the least popular Bears during his three (2005-2007) years after the organization made him the fourth-overall pick of that 2005 draft.

But things are not always as they seem.

Benson went through a 36-day holdout before reporting to the team, missing just about all of the 2005 training camp and preseason. When he arrived, the locker room seemed pretty set against him, for various reasons:

He was drafted as the replacement for Thomas Jones, the very popular tailback who’d been signed in the 2004 offseason but who failed to impress in the first year of a four-year, $10 million contract. He and Jones did not get along, coming to blows in one practice, and teammates were clearly Jones supporters.

But Jones had zero 1,000-yard years over his first five seasons; beginning with ’05 and the arrival of Benson, he went on a run of five straight seasons of no fewer than 1,100 yards, two with the Bears followed by three with the New York Jets after he engineered a trade to get out of Chicago.

And Ced was just…different. But to this reporter, different in good ways. He was very thoughtful; more than a few times, he’d have a question posed to him, then take an unusually long time before answering. But he was simply a thoughtful guy.

Case in point: I did a lunchtime sit-down with Ced outside the Olivet Nazarene mess hall during the 2006 training camp in Bourbonnais. To one of my questions, Ced said, “Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Let me get back to you about that one.”

Much later that afternoon, after a brutal, full-pad practice, I was walking away from the fields. Ced came running over, still in pads. “Hey,” he said. “I was thinking about what what we were talking about… .” And he had. And he also was honest about getting back to me. Yeah, I liked the guy.

The Bears let him go after a disappointing 2007 season and he caught on with the Cincinnati Bengals the next year. In 2009 the Bears went to Cincinnati and were annihilated 45-10, putting 215 rushing yards on a very good Bears defense and Benson accounting for 189 of those yards.

Afterwards I was able catch Ced before he left, and I was stunned to see how good he looked physically. He laughed at my surprise, then talked a long time about how he’d discovered a severe gluten intolerance. With that fixed, his complexion cleared up and he wasn’t dealing with the intestinal issues that any gluten-challenged fan out there knows too well. Anyhow, it was great to see a young man moving on to some sort of career, which included that year and the next two with more than 1,000 yards.

That it didn’t happen for him in Chicago was always a little puzzling. He was a phenomenal athlete, good enough to be drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an outfielder and play in their summer league.

He was a very, very emotional guy; at Halas Hall Sunday it was recalled how he’d cried during his conference call with the media following his drafting by the Bears. And he had his problem situations off the field, and he was waived in the 2008 offseason after a couple of arrests involving suspected alcohol abuse.

Those are probably the things too many people will remember about Ced. Too bad. There was much more to the young man. And as was said before, things — and people — are not always everything they seem to be. Under that heading I’d include Thomas Jones’ tweet on Sunday. From a supposed “enemy:”

“Woke up to the horrible news of Cedric Benson's passing,” Jones said. “My heart aches for him and his family. Sending love, peace and blessings their way. Gone way too soon my brother. Rest well young King. You will truly be missed…. “