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01/18/13 9:00 PM ET
Cubs reach deals with Samardzija, Garza, Russell
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- The Cubs avoided arbitration with Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and James Russell on Friday, which was a relief for the three pitchers as well as the team.
"It's a big load off my mind," Garza said of his new $10.25 million deal. "It's time to focus on what matters."
Samardzija agreed to a $2.64 million contract, which has additional player bonus money, and Russell signed for $1.075 million. This was the first time Samardzija and Russell were eligible for salary arbitration. Garza will be a free agent after this season, and there had been some discussion regarding a long-term deal, but he isn't thinking about that.
"Right now, I just want to pitch," said the right-hander, who was limited to 18 starts in 2012 because of right elbow injury. "I'm happy this year is settled and taken care of. I'm not even thinking about [a long-term deal], I need to pitch. That's my focus now."
Garza said he feels "good, strong and healed," and is slightly ahead of schedule in his throwing program.
"When they said in November, 'Let it go,' we went absolutely nuts in the gym," Garza said on the first day of the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. "I feel like I've been locked in a cage for six months. That's the best way to put it."
Being sidelined for the last two months of 2012 gave Garza time to reflect on the game. This offseason, he said he's learned to be more patient, especially with three daughters in the house.
"I had to fight a 7-year-old to wipe makeup off," he said. "I had to fight a 3-year-old to go to sleep and I had to fight a 5-month-old to go to sleep. It was a pretty fun offseason."
Samardzija has stuck to the same strict routine he followed last winter, working out from 8-11 a.m., throwing off a mound every third day and playing long toss in between. The right-hander was 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in his first full season as a starter in 2012, which ended early because the Cubs' brass decided to shut him down.
He's been mentioned as a possible Opening Day starter. That's quite a change.
"That would be a 180 for sure," Samardzija said. "To go from maybe wondering if you were ever going to put a Cubs jersey on again two years ago at the convention to maybe being the Opening Day starter -- it means a lot to me.
"I'm not a selfish guy. That's not what I'm out for, but I have goals and things I want to shoot for and things that are important for me," he said. "If we're a better team if I pitch second or third behind a lefty, then so be it. It doesn't mean you don't have it in the back of your mind that you don't strive for something like that."
He hasn't talked to Cubs manager Dale Sveum about the April 1 assignment against the Pirates.
"I figure we'll wait until we get in uniform before we start talking about that," Samardzija said, laughing. "I'm looking at having a strong Spring Training, a really strong Spring Training. I think it's a way to bridge the work you did in the offseason to the regular season. I'm taking it seriously. I really want to perform well in Spring Training and state my case on the field. You want to earn that spot for sure."
Russell, who appeared in a career-high 77 games in 2012, has emerged as more than just a lefty specialist. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Russell is talented enough to deal with lefties and right-handers.
"He can go in for a clean inning and get three guys out," Hoyer said.
Being able to take care of the three contracts was a goal. Hoyer said neither he nor Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has gone to arbitration with a player.
"Talking to Jeff and talking to James, it's a great thing to get those kind of deals done," Hoyer said. "The process is one where it sets up that [in a hearing], you're disparaging players you don't want to disparage. We're really happy we could come to an agreement. Now we can focus on other things for the next three weeks instead of preparing cases."
Which means getting ready for the season.