Dedicated Samardzija eyes rotation spot
Cubs righty plays in Mexico, reports early to get head start
MESA, Ariz. -- For the first time since he committed 100 percent to baseball, Jeff Samardzija rarely put the ball down this offseason. He's hoping that dedication pays off with a spot in the Cubs' rotation.
Samardzija threw off the mound Monday at Fitch Park, well ahead of the first workout for pitchers and catchers, which is scheduled for Thursday. He's been in Arizona for a few weeks along with Carlos Zambrano, who also tuned up with an early-bird session Monday. Samardzija, Zambrano, Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Marshall and others all decided they'd had enough of the cold weather up north and it was time to get to work.
"I was joking around with a couple guys that this has turned into a 220-game year with Spring Training being so big and the season being so big and hopefully past that," Samardzija said. "It's going to be a long haul, but hopefully we come out of the gates sharp."
Samardzija added another five games at the end of the 2009 regular season when he pitched for the Aguilas of Mexicali in Baja California, Mexico. He bounced back and forth last season between Triple-A Iowa and the big league team, appearing in 18 games in the Minors and another 20 with the Cubs, and he joined the Mexican League team in October.
"It was a change of scenery, a change of everything, to get down there, and it was nice having a couple of the same coaches, with [Minor League coach David Rosario] down there working with me, pitching-wise," Samardzija said. "It was really good to take a deep breath and get away from everything and just pitch, really, and work on what I needed to do."
The right-hander had three stints with the big league team, April 23-May 6, June 30-Aug. 13 and Sept. 8 through the end of the season. He was looking for a chance to settle in one place. Shuttling back and forth didn't help last season.
"That's probably No. 1 on the list," he said. "Just knowing in my head I wasn't going anywhere and I had a solid month or however many starts to make the adjustments I wanted to make and go from there.
"I thought I made some good adjustments and worked on the curveball a little bit. I made the pitch more what fits my style better. Instead of trying to throw a big [12-to-6] curveball, I wanted to come out with an aggressive curveball that gets guys swinging."
In his five starts, he gave up six earned runs on 22 hits and eight walks over 24 innings. Samardzija struck out 22, did not allow a home run and finished 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA. But he was more concerned about the results than the numbers.
"It's a different kind of league," Samardzija said. "It can be a fastball-dominant league if you have a good one, but that was contradictory to why I was going down there. I threw a lot of offspeed pitches at times when I shouldn't have."
Doing so may have seemed unusual, but it was why he was there. Now, Samardzija feels his curve complements his fastball and splitter. Being in Mexico for one month isn't a bad assignment either. He thrived on the street food in Mexicali.
"The only problem was when you did want a burger or craved some pizza, it had a Mexican twist to it," he said. "Some Tecate Lights took care of that."
In 2008, Samardzija was used strictly in relief with the Cubs and posted a 2.28 ERA in 26 games. Last season, he made his first Major League start Aug. 12 against the Phillies -- one of two starts in 2009 -- and served up seven runs on eight hits over 3 1/3 innings. Not exactly an outing worth celebrating, but Samardzija said now it was all positive.
"I'm pretty good at 'in the moment' and being kind of stubborn with myself and being set in my ways and what I want to work on," Samardzija said. "I took a lot out of last year. Was it tough and how I wrote it up? It wasn't how I wrote it up, and it was tough. But I learned a lot and learned how it works growing up in this league and just playing baseball in general.
"I'm happy with where I'm at now with where I'm pitching and how the ball's coming out. I really haven't put the ball down this offseason, which feels great. It's the first time I've done that. I'm ready to go."
He's still young baseball-wise and knows it. Samardzija made a name for himself on the football field, catching passes as a stellar wide receiver at Notre Dame. The Cubs selected him in the fifth round of the 2006 Draft, and he has committed full-time to baseball.
Now, it's a matter of finding the right role. He succeeded as a reliever in '08 but wants to start.
"The future -- you never know," Samardzija said. "I want to give starting a fair enough shot. I feel with my body and with my arm I can be a successful starting pitcher who goes deep into games every fifth day. I feel that can happen.
"Being a young guy, there's still stuff I need to work on, and coming from a football background, maybe there's even more to work on. I want to give [starting] its fair shot. I've done it my whole life.
"I wouldn't qualify last year as giving it a full shot to be a starter. I thought at the end of the season it went pretty well, but it was only two starts, and you can't take too much from that. I want to do it. That's how I'm looking at it."
There is an opening in the Cubs rotation. Ted Lilly could miss the first month, maybe less, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder in early November. There are three starters set in Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells, and lots of candidates for the vacancies, including newly acquired Carlos Silva.
Samardzija, Gorzelanny and Sean Marshall are all friends. But they're all competing for the same thing.
"As a young guy, that's how you look at it first is that they're buddies," Samardzija said. "Obviously, they're good friends and they're on your team and you want to win with them. The older you get, the more you understand what this game is about. In the end it'll make you stronger."
Samardzija, Dempster and Gorzelanny trained in the Chicago area this offseason, getting started at 6 a.m. some days. That's earlier than Samardzija recalls going to class or even football practice.
In Mexico, word spread about Samardzija's All-American past, but he didn't get teased too much.
"They couldn't razz so much because their English wasn't great," he said, laughing. "They were intrigued and wanted to know more about it. We'd pull a football out and have a throw or catch."
It wasn't like the days when Samardzija pitched on the road for Class A Daytona and teams would play the USC fight song when he went to the mound to pitch.
Now 25, this will be Samardzija's fourth big league camp. He feels he's got a head start on things.
"I know how Lou [Piniella] works and what he looks for," Samardzija said of the Cubs manger. "I'll be in great shape and ready to play, and hopefully things will take care of themselves after that. It's right there. We'll see what happens."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.