Samardzija, Tanaka hot topics as Convention opens
Club exchanges arbitration figures with righty, continues pursuit of Japanese ace
CHICAGO -- During the opening ceremonies of the 29th Cubs Convention, Theo Epstein did not walk onto the stage and surprise the fans by saying he's signed Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka. Epstein, president of baseball operations, also couldn't announce that the Cubs had inked Jeff Samardzija to a new deal.
But Epstein and Samardzija, who is arbitration eligible, both sounded optimistic about the Cubs as the convention opened Friday at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.
"Obviously, there are fans with questions, and if I was sitting there, a fan of the Chicago Cubs, following the offseason, I would've hoped for more this winter, frankly, to be honest with you," Epstein said. "I'm not going to hide the ball. I would've hoped for bigger names and bigger investments and more change.
"But I would also feel great about the direction of the franchise and where we're heading and how talented a group of young players we've assembled and really be looking forward to the future," he said. "The future is bright. We don't have a lot to show for the offseason, as far as household names, but you can't go out and force it. There aren't shortcuts for what we're trying to do. We're not going to deviate from our plan, and we feel great about where we're headed. Compared to where we were a year ago and two years ago, I'm very bullish about the future."
Whether Samardzija fits into the Cubs' future remains to be seen. The pitcher and the team exchanged salary figures Friday, with Samardzija asking for $6.2 million and the team countering at $4.4 million.
"Obviously, I'm hopeful," Samardzija said about the possibility of a long-term deal with the Cubs. "I think I've said that from day one. Ever since I signed my first contract here with the Cubs, I've wanted to be here, and a big reason for not playing football was to come here and play in Chicago. It obviously means a lot for me to be here."
The right-hander, a former All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, also has heard his name mentioned in trade rumors as well. So has Epstein.
"I'm a big fan of Jeff Samardzija," Epstein said. "I think he has a great future. I think his best days are ahead of him. He's under club control for the next two years, and hopefully we get a chance to extend that window. There's been public speculation about a contract extension at times, a trade at times. I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I can tell you I'm really happy he's a Cub and look forward to him getting the ball on Opening Day."
Epstein also has said that the negotiations with Samardzija are not linked to the Cubs' interest in Tanaka. Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and new Cubs manager Rick Renteria met with the Japanese pitcher earlier this month.
"He's a very talented 25-year-old pitcher who has proven everything he can in Japan and is looking forward to the next challenge in Major League Baseball," said Epstein, who did not want to talk about the meeting or the negotiations with Tanaka. "He's a valuable commodity, so we'll see what happens with his future here in the States."
Samardzija knows what the addition of Tanaka would mean to the Cubs.
"Obviously, it changes that timeline," Samardzija said. "I've mentioned my frustration with that 'R' word [rebuilding] before. You bring him in and that 'R' word essentially disintegrates."
The Cubs are rebuilding, and fans at the convention showed their excitement for some of the prospects, cheering loudly for Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler, who were introduced during the opening ceremonies. Epstein continues to stress that the youngsters need time to develop, which means Soler won't be starting in right field on Opening Day.
Epstein hasn't thrown in the towel on the 2014 season either.
"This season starting, we don't show up in Spring Training saying, 'Hey, let's get ready for 2000-whatever-year down the road,'" he said. "We're trying to compete and win as many games as we can in 2014. We want to show improvement, and we'd love to show a lot of improvement. There's room for improvement.
"We have a lot of talented players on the roster who didn't have their best years last year, and I know they're really committed with the work they've done this offseason to doing better next year," he said, "and we have guys who did make breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there."
After losing 197 games over the past two seasons, the future can't come soon enough for the Cubs. Samardzija wants to be a part of it.
"Being a part of that building process and saying you had your hands in molding it is exciting, too," Samardzija said.
Instead of player signings, the biggest news around the Cubs lately has been the introduction of their new mascot, Clark, which resulted in what Epstein jokingly referred to as a "Clark-ophony" of responses. If the Cubs were coming off back-to-back winning seasons, fans might be more focused on who the backup catcher is rather than a bear.
"We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," Epstein said. "We've been a last-place team. We haven't accomplished our baseball goals. Our business plan, a lot of it is still in front of us and yet to be executed. I believe we're going to execute on both fronts and the conversation will be a lot different in a few years."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.