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.”

Diamondbacks name Dan Haren as pitching strategist

PHOENIX - APRIL 05:  Starting pitcher Dan Haren #15 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches against the San Diego Padres during the Opening Day major league baseball game at Chase Field on April 5, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Padres 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Diamondbacks announced on Tuesday afternoon that former major leaguer Dan Haren has been named the organization’s new pitching strategist. The role will include working with the front office, the major league coaching staff, and the analytics department.

Haren, 36, ended his 13-year playing career after the 2015 season. He finished with a 153-131 record and a 3.75 ERA across 2,419 2/3 innings.

Since retiring, Haren has been one of the more enjoyable players to follow on Twitter. He promised to teach his disciples how to tweet as part of his new responsibilities.

Pablo Sandoval is in the best shape of his life

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For a guy who won a World Series MVP Award and has been to a couple of All-Star Games, it’s amazing how many stories have been written about Pablo Sandoval‘s off-the-field exploits compared to his on-the-field exploits. Specifically, stories about his conditioning. Or lack of conditioning. Of him getting into shape, falling out of shape and getting back into shape again. It’s been this way since he emerged as an everyday player in 2009.

And it continues anew:

There is no claim here that Sandoval is, in fact, in The Best Shape of His Life. However, longtime BSOHL fans know that the claim is not about the magic words being used. The idea is that, in the offseason, players with something to prove will routinely make an effort to create the impression that they are a new man. Often it is from claiming that one is in The Best Shape of His Life. Often it comes from surrogates talking about how many pounds of fat one has lost or pounds of pure muscle one has added. Sometimes — as here — it comes in the form of showing post-workout photos.

Whatever the purpose of the photo, Sandoval is certainly looking good compared to where he was last spring:

FORT MYERS, - MARCH 14: Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox makes the throw to first on the ground ball from Jason Rogers (not in photo) of the Pittsburgh Pirates during the fourth inning of the Spring Training Game on March 14, 2016 at Jet Blue Park at Fenway South, Florida. The Pirates defeated the Red Sox 3-1. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Or at the end of the 2015 season:

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 31: Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox warms up prior to the first inning against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on August 31, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Red Sox won the game 4-3. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Even if this is part of a plan to get Sandoval some good press heading into the 2017 season, I’m happy to see that he appears to be recovered from shoulder surgery and appears to be taking good care of himself and is thinking about his baseball futrue.

Either way, expect the Panda Weight Watch to continue at Red Sox spring training come February.