Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Phone Call Away

When Jeff Samardzija walked away from the potential to make millions in the NFL for the long-shot world of pro baseball, a lot of people lost sight of the fact that he was equipped with quite the golden parachute - $10 million guaranteed from the Chicago Cubs. And despite the comforting obscurity which minor league ball provides, football notoriety is something that still follows The Shark around. Witness the display when he arrived at the Cubs Triple-A affiliate Iowa last week:
The I-Cubs hung a makeshift No. 83 jersey in Samardzija's locker, hazing the new guy the only way they knew how. Though Samardzija had long traded in the navy and gold of Notre Dame football for blue pinstripes, even he had to laugh.

Samardzija knows that until he proves otherwise, he'll always be that floppy-haired wide receiver who chose baseball over the NFL.

"They saw me playing every Saturday, but they didn't see me playing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in baseball. Obviously nowadays, you believe what you see, believe what you read in the paper or what you see on TV," said Samardzija. "I don't blame them for it. My job is to go out and show them that I can play baseball, too."

Though Samardzija is now just one step from Wrigley Field, most folks still think of him as a football player. That's a testament to his career at Notre Dame, the Irish's national profile and the anonymity of the path Samardzija chose.

Samardzija's professional numbers have been up and down - despite showing enough progress to earn promotions from Single-A Daytona to Double-A Tennessee last season and now onto Iowa, one step from The Show, he has gone 10-17 with an ERA in the 4.60 range since the start of 2007. The Cubs still love his raw potential though, which they should considering that unlike a normal 23-year old who would've given five or six years to non-stop baseball training by this point in their career, Notre Dame's all-time touchdown receptions leader has only been at it for a year and a half:
The scouting report on Samardzija, according to Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason, is that he's a "sinker, slider" guy with a complementary changeup and splitter. The athleticism that served Samardzija so well on the gridiron -- just ask former Michigan State coach John L. Smith about that -- also works to his benefit on the mound. So does a sinking fastball he can blow by hitters.

But Iowa wants to see Samardzija master the art of throwing quality off-speed pitches in hitter's counts. Do that, Mason said, and Samardzija could become a major league starter.

"He's just got good stuff, and the game kind of teaches you what goes where," Mason said. "Is he ever going to look pretty picture perfect? No, because he doesn't have to. He's a good enough athlete to, when he's finds a happy medium mechanically, he'll be able to repeat it. And that's all that matters."
What Jeff will need to cut down on in order to find a home with the parent club is his tendency to walk batters - in his first two starts at Iowa he issued 8 free passes, and for the season has 50 walks against 53 strikeouts. But the Cubs are looking for answers to the back end of their starting rotation, particularly with uncertainty surrounding Carlos Zambrano and unreliability the hallmark of guys like Rich Hill, Sean Gallagher, and Sean Marshall. Don't be surprised to see Jeff on the move once more in 2008, either as the centerpiece of a trade for a veteran pitcher like CC Sabathia or Rich Harden, or getting a September call-up as a chance to audition for 2009.

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