Cubs

Garza thinks Samardzija has the right stuff for October

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Garza thinks Samardzija has the right stuff for October

MILWAUKEE Theo Epstein generally agrees with the idea that the playoffs are a crapshoot, though hes found that certain things show up more in October, like frontline starting pitching.

As the Cubs president begins this rebuilding project, the national media is just starting to pick up on what people in Chicago and around the team have been saying for weeks: Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija could be a devastating one-two punch.

Neither one is a finished product. But Samardzija was a stopper in front of Sundays sellout crowd at Miller Park, even without his best stuff, and thats all part of the learning curve.

Manager Dale Sveum pushed the right buttons, pinch-hitting for Samardzija in the sixth inning of a tie game. Reed Johnson drilled a ball over the left-field fence and the Cubs started to open it up in an 8-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that avoided the sweep.

Samardzija needed 91 pitches to get through five innings. It wasnt always coming out of his hand right, and he left some balls up. But he still limited the Brewers (15-19) to one run and showed that he understands how to make adjustments.

(Earlier in my career), I probably would have stayed hard and really tried to overpower guys, Samardzija said. I thought I mixed my pitches pretty well there with runners on and didnt give them too many opportunities to square the ball up.

Some will question whether this is for real, but Garza isnt surprised by Samardzijas growth. The former Notre Dame star didnt get the win on Sunday, but hes still 4-1 with a 2.89 ERA.

He pitched his tail off all last year, Garza said. Hes always wanted to be a starter. You put a prize like that in front of a guy like that, hes going to go out and get it.

Shoot, he was an All-American in football, a potential top-15 (NFL) pick. He ended up picking this sport and Im pretty sure hes happy he did. Hes throwing the crap out of the ball. Hes big, strong and can throw hard for nine-plus. Thats a bright future. He just keeps getting better.

Garza is under club control through the end of the 2013 season. Epstein has said that the teams performance wont dictate what the front office will do with him. The Cubs dont have to make any final decisions on a potential contract extension by the July 31 trade deadline.

The Cubs are 14-20 and it will take years before they get to the point Epstein wants as an organization. What about the idea of building through a rotation fronted by Garza and Samardzija?

Sounds scary to me, Garza said.

Garza, who has proven to be a good teammate, also made a point to talk up the rest of the rotation, complimenting, by name, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad. But it will start at the top, and this is where you can look toward the future.

Across his last four starts a span of 26.1 innings Samardzija has given up three earned runs. This season, hes rung up 45 strikeouts in 43.2 innings, against only 14 walks.

Hes good, Johnson said. You can tell by the reactions of the other hitters, and some of the at-bats these good hitters are taking. Hes keeping them off-balance, even though hes throwing 96-97 mph.

Hes not just pumping all fastballs. Hes mixing it up enough for them not to be able to just sit back and tee off. I faced him in spring training and nothings really straight. Hes sinking it and cutting it, throwing splits. He makes it tough on those guys.

Garza eliminated the Boston Red Sox in 2008 and picked up the ALCS MVP hardware for the Tampa Bay Rays. Just ask him what this could do for the Cubs.

Samardzijas the type of guy where he craves the spotlight, and thats what you need in October, Garza said. You need a guy whos not afraid to be out there, a guy who, when the lights are on, (isnt all) deer in the headlights.

You stand around him for minutes and its just confidence oozing out of him. For a guy like that to be in October, thats even more fun to watch. Thats why I cant wait to get there.

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Closer a major question mark for 2020 Cubs

The last time Cubs fans saw Craig Kimbrel on the mound, he was staring bewildered at the left-field bleachers after serving up homers to the Cardinals on back-to-back pitches. It was a moment that became the dagger for the 2019 Cubs, even if it didn't officially eliminate them from postseason contention.

That Sept. 21 outing marked Kimbrel's third blown save and fourth loss of the season and the Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong homers were the eighth and ninth longballs the Cubs closer gave up in just 23 outings and 20.2 innings.

Nobody associated with the Cubs saw things playing out quite like this when they signed him in early June. Even Kimbrel's doubters who believed his struggles at the end of his Red Sox tenure were a harbinger of things to come couldn't have anticipated a 6.53 ERA and 1.60 WHIP from a guy who had a career line of a 1.91 ERA and 0.92 WHIP coming into 2019.

So where do the Cubs go from here?

Kimbrel is still owed $16 million for 2020 and 2021 and is the only truly established pitcher the Cubs currently have in their bullpen for next season with Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Pedro Strop and others ticketed for free agency.

The Cubs opted to shut down Kimbrel for the final week of 2019 to get healthy after dealing with knee and elbow issues but neither injury will require surgery this winter, Theo Epstein said.

"He's really determined to have a great offseason and looking forward to a full and legitimate spring training," Epstein said. "He feels awful about the way this year went, recognized that he was in an unusual position, but I think you'll see a really determined individual who will benefit from the full spring training."

The Cubs better hope so.

For a franchise that is going to again have to take their budget into account when building the 2020 roster, that $16 million price tag is an awful lot if Kimbrel cannot return to the elite closer he was before coming to Chicago.

But even beyond that, the Cubs absolutely need him to lock down the ninth inning. Rowan Wick impressed in 2019 and emerged as maybe the team's best reliever down the stretch, but he doesn't have much of a track record. The same goes for lefties Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. The Cubs have reason to feel optimistic about all three pitchers as up-and-coming relievers, but putting too much stock into a trio of guys without much experience is an easy way to run into major bullpen problems. 

Right now, those are the only four names you can confidently pencil into the 2020 bullpen, though other in-house options loom (Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Danny Hultzen, Duane Underwood Jr., etc.) depending on how the Cubs configure their rotation and the rest of the roster.

There's obvious concern surrounding Kimbrel, but there's also a reasonable case to be confident 2020 will be a different story. In his entire career, he has served up homers at a rate of just 0.72 per 9 innings, so his 3.92 HR/9 this season is a clear aberration that not even the juiced ball can full explain away. 

The velocity dip (down nearly 1 mph from 2018 and 2 mph from 2017) is scary, but may also be related to the odd year Kimbrel had. 

Baseball players — and closers, in particular — are very routine-oriented and no plan can make up for a situation that saw Kimbrel facing live hitters nearly four months later than usual. He's used to throwing off a mound and ramping up in spring training in mid-February and was instead still in a free agency stalemate until early June.

When he was signed, it was viewed as a clear upgrade for the Cubs, who were plagued by early-season bullpen issues. They were only able to afford Kimbrel because Ben Zobrist took a leave of absence and left several million dollars on the table for Epstein to put towards addressing an obvious weakness on the roster.

At the time, signing a World Champion closer on a Hall of Fame trajectory was the best possible way Epstein could shore up the bullpen.

"There was some element of risk, because of the unknown of an elite closer coming in mid-season," Epstein said on the team's final road trip. "That's a risk we were prepared to take because of the opportunity that presented itself. The resources got opened up with Zo's absence and the opportunity of an elite closer sitting there for a contract that was certainly reasonable compared to what most guys of his ilk were getting over the long-term. 

"So, we were prepared to take that. We thought it was a really good fit and we were prepared to take that risk. It hasn't turned out as we had hoped. It obviously [killed] Craig that he wasn't able to help down the stretch here. The two trips to the DL and not being able to reach his accustomed level on a consistent basis, you have to think it's related to not having his normal foundation underneath him. It's something we'll certainly talk to him about and how to have a really effective offseason and get back to his normal Spring Training, so he can get back to being himself consistently."

Blackhawks not going to 'freak out' about 0-2-1 start

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USA Today

Blackhawks not going to 'freak out' about 0-2-1 start

The Blackhawks wanted to get off to a strong start this season because they know how hard it is to climb out of a hole in the Central Division. Last season was proof of that.

Well, they've picked up only one out of a possible six points through three games and are one of three teams still searching for their first victory of the season. But they're not going into panic mode just yet.

"We know there's things we have to improve upon," Jonathan Toews said. "Jeremy [Colliton] always talks about doing the right thing and over time eventually you're going to get results. I don't know if we can say we're doing things the right things that we want to and we're playing complete games right now, so even having said that, midway through the San Jose game and even against Winnipeg we were in a position to take control of the game going into the third period and we let teams back in. So I think there's a lot of ways we can play better.

"But having said that we're in those games and giving ourselves a chance to win. Obviously that's not good enough, but we're not going to freak out and say, 'we've got to start winning games.' Of course that's the goal, we wanted to get two points the other night."

The quest to pick up their first two points of the season doesn't get any easier for the Blackhawks on Monday night. The Edmonton Oilers are coming to town with a 5-0-0 record, and they're clicking on all cylinders. They have the second-best power play unit (41.2 percent), second-best penalty kill percentage (94.1), the NHL's leading point-getter in Connor McDavid (12) and leading goal scorer in James Neal (seven).

The Blackhawks know at some point they have to start stringing together some wins, but they're not living and dying by the standings right now because everything looks out of proportion. They're focused on the process and putting together a full 60-minute effort.

"It's always magnified at the start of the year," Colliton said. "Your special teams, you got [teams] with 100 percent PK, you got [teams] with 40 percent power play, and all the little things they look way bigger than they are. Would be nice for us to get a win, get some positive feelings but any three-game window among the 82, it's not going to be looked upon as closely as this one.

"So again, we've just got to focus on playing hard, playing the game the right way, do the right thing time and time again and we'll get the results." 

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