samardzija getty

Cubs’ trade forces lining up with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel

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ST. LOUIS — This Cubs season is almost 25 percent complete, which is still a long way toward September, much less the finishing touches on a renovated Wrigley Field or the 2020 TV bonanza (as long as the cable bubble doesn’t burst).

As the Cubs packed up after a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday afternoon, they would leave Busch Stadium with the worst record in baseball at 13-26, percentage points below the tanking Houston Astros.

[RELATED: Rizzo vs. The Shift: Cubs take what they can in loss to Cards]

Which makes you wonder where the Cubs would be if they didn’t get Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro’s bounce-back starts, Emilio Bonifacio’s hot streak, Welington Castillo’s step forward, Mike Olt’s eight homers, Hector Rondon’s 1.47 ERA and some very good starting pitching.

The trade forces are lining up with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the steady sign-and-flip guy who let one bad inning ruin his getaway day. Hammel joked it’s “the kiss of death” to strike out the side in the first, and sure enough he gave up a two-out, two-run single to Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha in the four-run second.

It depends on what aisle you want to shop in, but Hammel (4-2, 3.06 ERA) said physically that was the best he felt all year, despite giving up five runs in 5.1 innings.

Samardzija has a 1.45 ERA, going 7-for-8 in quality starts, but he will still be looking for his first win when he faces the first-place Milwaukee Brewers on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.

“The wins thing to me is frustrating, because in general I think it’s a stat we’ve all moved away from,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s a big story because he’s now breaking records with his winless streak. But the way he’s pitched — he’s been as good as anybody in the National League. People recognize it.”

Or, as pitching coach Chris Bosio said: “Jeff Samardzija’s a beast.”

[MORE: Cubs hope Kris Bryant can change conversation, stopping talk about future]

When the Cubs woke up in St. Louis on Thursday, the five teams in the American League East were separated by only 3.5 games. The five teams in the National League East were separated by only 4.5 games.

There are teams at or above .500 that could be seeing windows closing or feeling some pressure from the fans and ownership to deliver results now — like the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies.

The New York Yankees — who will face Hammel and Samardzija next week at Wrigley Field — have 60 percent of their Opening Day rotation on the disabled list.

As part of the sweeping Tommy John epidemic, the Miami Marlins just lost Jose Fernandez, their All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young contender and box-office attraction in Little Havana.

[MORE: Cubs hoping Arodys Vizcaino will be Tommy John comeback story]

The Texas Rangers have gone to this well before with Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, but they do have seven pitchers from their 40-man roster now on the disabled list.

Hoyer knows there’s nothing left to say about the business side of Samardzija’s game: “Certainly, we’ve discussed his contractual status ad nauseam.”

Samardzija, who intends to test the free-agent market after the 2015 season, lobbied the Theo Epstein administration after a breakthrough year as a reliever in 2011, believing he could be a frontline guy in the rotation.

“Jeff deserves the most credit,” Hoyer said. “He was the one that really pounded the table saying he wanted to be a starter and he’s kept getting better and better. There’s times when he’s relied on his split, but this year he’s done a brilliant job of pitching with his two-seamer, staying down in the zone. He keeps evolving as a pitcher.”

The kind of pitcher who could be a difference-maker in a pennant race. It will take some time to play out, but no one will be surprised when the Cubs try to jump the market again.

“You got to stay looking at the positives,” Hammel said, “because we played a lot of good ballgames where we’re not getting blown out. It’s not ugly games. It’s just one or two pitches here and there or one or two timely hits that we just haven’t gotten. It’s not like we’re just laying down.”

Padres sign Trevor Cahill

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Trevor Cahill (53) during the seventh inning of Game 3 in baseball's National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
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The Padres have signed Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.75 million contract.

As recently as the middle of the 2015 season it looked like Cahill’s career would meet a premature end, but after being released by the Braves and signing with the Cubs in August of that season he has been a remarkably effective reliever. He has posted a 2.61 ERA in 61 games in Chicago and has posted a strikeout rate far above his career norms.

He’s not someone you necessarily want taking the hill when the leverage is high, but in San Diego the leverage won’t be all that high all that often.

Justin Verlander: “I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process”

DETROIT, MI - JULY 20: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the eighth inning of the game against the Minnesota Twins on July 20, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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The Tigers have sent some mixed signals this winter. The offseason began with widespread reports that GM Al Avila was going to break up the team. Indeed, it was reported that he was willing to field offers for any and all players, on up to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.

As the offseason has unfolded, however, a rebuild has not materialized.

Avila traded away outfielder Cameron Maybin. He signed old friends Omar Infante and Alex Avila. He made the usual sorts of minor league signings every team makes to fill out the roster. Detroit still needs a center fielder and there continue to be rumors that outfielder J.D. Martinez and second baseman Ian Kinsler could be had for the right price, but it’s been pretty quiet at 2100 Woodward Avenue.

If that changes, however, and the Tigers do start to rebuild, there’s one key member of the team who doesn’t really want a part of it. From the Detroit Free Press:

Justin Verlander is 33 years and 330 days old.

He’s not that old.

But the Detroit Tigers ace right-hander – a 12-year major league veteran – is old enough in baseball years to know that he doesn’t really want to be part of a rebuilding process.

“Would it have been upsetting for me if we started trading away everybody?” he told MLB Network Radio on Friday morning. “I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process.”

Verlander will make $28 million a year for each of the next three seasons and has a vesting option for 2020 if he finishes in the top 5 of the 2019 Cy Young vote. He had an excellent return-to-form in 2016, but his contract is still pretty big for a pitcher with his mileage, making it seem unlikely that he would be moved absent the team eating a huge portion of his salary. The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera who, despite still being one of the best hitters in baseball, is making between $28-32 million between now and 2023. A wonderful player, but an extraordinarily difficult contract to move. Both superstars have full no-trade protection as 10-5 men as well.

At the moment the rebuild does not seem to be materializing and the Tigers — as I think they should, probably — will enter 2017 aiming for the AL Central crown, not aiming at restocking their farm system.

But what will Verlander think, however, if the Tigers find themselves out of contention come May? What will he think if Ian Kinsler — a valuable player on a tradable contract — is sold off? Or Justin Upton? Or J.D. Martinez?

It’s worth watching.