Bulls

Cubs will put Samardzija front and center

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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.

Bulls select Wendell Carter Jr., find perfect frontcourt pairing for Lauri Markkanen

Bulls select Wendell Carter Jr., find perfect frontcourt pairing for Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls had the chance to make a major splash on draft night but opted to go with the safer play on Thursday, selecting Duke center Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall selection.

Carter Jr. played one season at Duke, averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 26.8 minutes per game. The All-ACC Freshman selection shot 56 percent from the field and made 41 percent of his 46 3-pointers, all the while doing so as a fourth or fifth option in a loaded Blue Devils offense.

Carter was a five-star recruit a year ago from Atlanta. He committed to and signed with Duke before Marvin Bagley, the second pick by the Kings, reclassified and also joined the Duke frontcourt. Carter went from the cream of the draft class crop to a second option in the frontcourt, deferring to Bagley, who averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and won ACC Player of the Year.

But Carter finds himself in a perfect scenario in Chicago. It’s clear the Bulls valued finding a complement to stretch forward Lauri Markkanen – last year’s 7th overall pick – drafting a player in Carter who projects as an elite rim protector and also plays well around the rim, two areas where the talented Markkanen struggles.

Rumors circulated in the lead-up to Thursday night’s draft that the Bulls were looking to move up in the draft, potentially dealing with Atlanta at No. 3 or Memphis at No. 4.

But the Hawks were able to find a trade partner with the Mavericks, who gave up a haul in the No. 5 pick and a 2019 first-round pick to move up to get Slovenian point guard Luka Doncic. Then Michigan State center Jaren Jackson Jr. agreed at the 11th hour to provide medical information to the Grizzlies. That made the prospect of moving up in the draft all but impossible, keeping them at No. 7.

At No. 6 the Magic grabbed Mo Bamba, a player the Bulls were attempting to trade up for to pair with Markkanen.

The Bulls had long been linked to Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., the enigma of the draft who wound up falling out of the top 7. Porter had been the top player in the country before undergoing back surgery in November. He played just three games for the Tigers and ultimately went 14th to the Nuggets.

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."