Confident Samardzija brimming with excitement
Out of options, Cubs righty plans to compete for rotation spot
CHICAGO -- Jeff Samardzija is so excited about how his offseason is going and how well he's throwing that he told two reporters to come down to Arizona to watch.
This will be a key spring for the Cubs pitcher.
"I'm kind of taking a different approach to it this year," Samardzija said. "You don't want to sound selfish, but I'm taking care of what I can take care of. I'm sure the list is up to seven or eight guys trying for the starting rotation. It's the same song every year."
The list of candidates for the five spots in the rotation was reduced by one when the Cubs dealt Tom Gorzelanny to the Nationals. This season will be different for Samardzija because he's out of options. Samardzija, who turned 26 on Sunday, is aware of his status.
"I really don't care, to tell you the truth," he said about the need to make the 25-man roster. "I'm very, very excited with how things are going and me being down there [in Arizona] since early November. How I'm working out, how I'm throwing the ball, how I'm throwing off the mound already, I'm very, very excited.
"I know at the end of the year, it'll be a different story than what it is now. A lot is to be written, but I'm excited. I feel great, I really do."
Samardzija, an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, choosing to play baseball rather than pursue a career in the NFL. In 2008, he showed promise as a setup man, posting a 2.28 ERA in 26 appearances, but didn't hide his desire to start. The next season, he shuttled back and forth between the big league team and Triple-A Iowa, starting, then relieving, and couldn't get into a rhythm. In 2010, the Cubs decided he should stay put in hopes of developing better command of his pitches. He went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 35 games (15 starts) at Iowa.
The right-hander broke camp with the Cubs in 2010, but was optioned to Iowa on April 24. He came up Sept. 7 and made three starts, going 2-1 with a 6.19 ERA.
"I'm totally confident in how I ended the year last year," said Samardzija, who took one month off after the season ended before moving to Mesa, Ariz., to get to work.
Back in town for the Cubs Convention, Samardzija said he has already been on the mound before most other pitchers.
"All of my pitches are already there," he said. "Now, I'm trying to get past that dead arm phase you usually feel in Spring Training, so when Spring Training comes around, it's a little different."
His success at Iowa helped his confidence. Being with the Minor League team wasn't his first choice, but it may have paid off.
"You can't control where you're at, you can only control what you do there," he said. "Looking back on it, I have a different opinion on everything. Everything you work on mechanics-wise, and going from starting to relieving, and to go through all that and still have the kind of year I had and be where I'm at mentally now, I'm excited. It's vaulted me into the offseason. I've been working my tail off and I understand where I want to be this year."
Where he wants to be is with the Cubs. He will have a new pitching coach, but a familiar one. Mark Riggins, who is replacing Larry Rothschild, now with the Yankees, was the Cubs' Minor League pitching coordinator.
"I think Riggins has seen me go through everything we've been through the last few years," Samardzija said. "I think we're on the same page. [His approach is], 'Let's just wipe the slate clean and let's go back to being an athlete and let things take care of themselves,' and it's really opened doors.
"It takes a load off your shoulders to know I don't have to change anything this year, I don't have to backtrack and I felt that's what I've been doing is treading water for about a year and a half. I don't want to do that any more and I'm not going to do that anymore. To turn that page and go into the offseason on a clean slate has been great. The only thing I could do is fly you guys down and have you watch me throw and watch me work."
Samardzija then laughed, and suggested the Ricketts family do that. Not likely.
When the right-hander did get called up to the big leagues last season, his mechanics were obviously different than they were at the beginning of the year.
"I think it's been an evolution, going from how I threw in Little League to working things out to what did I like, what worked, what felt comfortable," he said. "Now it's almost like a finished project. You go through everything and you come out a different guy.
"I'm almost back to the simplicity of how I felt when I was younger mixed with the knowledge of what I've learned over the years. It's a humbling experience."
He's gotten good advice. Samardzija's workout partner most of the time in Arizona is pitcher Ryan Dempster.
"I don't know what the future holds or where I'm going to be, or what I'm going to be doing," Samardzija said, "but I know I'm going to be good at it. I'm really looking forward to the season."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.