Samardzija set to start spring slate
Right-hander begins quest to solidify spot on Cubs' 25-man roster
MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija showed the Cubs he could handle the big leagues when called up last season. Now he wants to convince them to keep him on the 25-man roster for 2009.
Samardzija will take that first step Wednesday when the right-hander opens the Cubs' Cactus League season against the Los Angeles Dodgers at HoHoKam Park.
"I love being around these guys so much and after getting a taste of last year and seeing how these guys play the game, I want to be here," Samardzija said. "Guys like [Derrek Lee] and Reed [Johnson] are playing the game with a passion and it's great not only to have that, but to have them play on your side. It's not bad having D-Lee at first and hitting third.
"If I could pick a team to be playing with on the field, whether it's out of the bullpen, whether it's starting, this is the team I want to be playing with," he said. "If I can help this team win some games, whether it's throwing an inning every day or every third day, I feel I can do that."
He'll get plenty of chances. The Cubs have 39 Spring Training games, including two in Las Vegas March 4-5 against the Chicago White Sox and two at the end of the schedule at new Yankee Stadium, April 3-4.
"I've got to pace myself," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of the extended spring.
Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden are being held back from the first few games to avoid having them peak too soon. Ted Lilly will be pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. That creates lots of opportunities for some of the young pitchers on the Cubs staff, such as Samardzija and Mitch Atkins, as well as some of the older ones, such as Aaron Heilman and Mike Stanton, to make a good impression on Piniella.
Samardzija compiled a 2.28 ERA in 26 games after he was called up last July 25. He is projected career-wise as a starter, and there is a vacancy in the Cubs' rotation, although lefty Sean Marshall appears to have the inside track for that spot. What the Cubs want to see is consistency.
"That just comes with more innings, more pitches, more innings here," Samardzija said. "I think I show flashes of it where I really start grooving and I'm consistent but there are times when I get excited, whether it's the crowd or the situation, the guy I'm facing, and I'll get open on my front side and the ball will stay up, things like that.
"Can I identify that? It's a matter of just going out there and doing it," he said. "There are pitches I go to at times but I need to be consistent with all four of them. Once I can do that, I think we can start going the next step."
There is no exact science to determine when it's the right time to call up a player from the Minor Leagues. Mark Riggins, the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator, was one of the people consulted last year when the team was looking for relief help.
Samardzija began the 2008 season at Double-A Tennessee and was 3-5 with a 4.86 ERA in 16 games (15 starts). He was bumped up to Triple-A Iowa, where he went 4-1 with a 3.13 ERA in six starts.
"His numbers weren't great," Riggins said of the right-hander. "He struggled early in the year at Double-A, made some corrections with his delivery, and worked hard and started gaining some confidence. He was on a roll a little bit when he moved to Triple-A. It wasn't like he was really ready for Triple-A, either.
"But once he got to Triple-A, it seemed like he took off," Riggins said. "He wanted that challenge. Double-A might have been a little boring, I don't know."
After all, Samardzija was used to playing in front of 100,000-plus and national television audiences when he played college football at Notre Dame. There's a big difference between playing at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and playing in Chattanooga.
"I wasn't bored," Samardzija said. "I kept myself pretty entertained. Not bored, but when we played teams and there were big prospects or a big leaguer rehabbing, I'd get on the horse. I can't describe it -- it's just how it is.
"I knew where I wanted to be," he said. "I wasn't putting life and death situations there, as I do when I take the mound in the big leagues, and I put all the chips out. I didn't take that approach in the Minor Leagues -- maybe that's right or wrong, probably wrong.
"I knew where I wanted to be and I knew it wasn't everything in the Minor Leagues. I got to Triple-A and prepared for competition, and my pitches started coming around and it vaulted me to where I am now."
Promoting a player is never an easy decision. Riggins has seen young players called up who simply aren't ready -- they get psyched out by "upper-deck syndrome" -- and some never recover.
"A lot of guys can get scared," Riggins said. "He thrives on that."
The competitive juices seem to change for Samardzija when he's facing a team that's 20-10 vs. 10-20.
"Playing in front of people just does something," Samardzija said. "It adds a different aspect, whether people are watching on TV or at the game. Add that to playing against the best baseball players in the world, and you understand you need to be at the top of your game. It brings something out in you that wouldn't be there in other situations. I just think I was used to that. It was comfortable for me to be in that situation."
When the Cubs consider whether a player is ready to make that leap, they factor in how well he can handle failure. Will he be scared? Will he lose confidence? Or, if shelled, can he bounce back two days later?
Samardzija has passed those tests.
"Jeff's makeup is really off the charts," Riggins said.
Is he ready for the big leagues this year?
"He's not where he's going to be," Riggins said of the right-hander. "He's going to be really good at some point. That just comes with experience.
"He's just got to go into games and pitch and pitch and pitch. It's never a lock that you're going to be successful every year, especially at the Major League level. He's got to push every time he goes out there to perform. It never gets easy."
Samardzija will get started on Wednesday.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.