Samardzija gets the start in spring home opener

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Jeff Samardzija came into Spring Training last season just looking for a spot in the rotation. He comes to Arizona this year as one of the best young arms in the game and a possible Opening Day starter. On Sunday, he’ll take the hill for the Cubs in their Cactus League home opener against the defending World Champion Giants.

That’s quite a transformation for the 6-foot-5 former Notre Dame wide receiver.

As absurd as it may sound, Samardzija—yes, former million-dollar draftee turned minor league bust turned major league reliever turned frequently brilliant starter Jeff Samardzija—may be ready to take yet another step in his unusual career arc and become the piece that every team desires, a true font-of-the-rotation ace.

“Jeff was the one [in our starting staff] who matured as a pitcher [last year],” said pitching coach Chris Bosio. “[He went] from a pretty good pitcher to I think in that top five, maybe top six category as far as starters in the National League. I thought he had a very nice season, but we’re expecting bigger and better things out of Samardzija this year.”

That’s high praise for the tall right-hander, as Bosio seems ready to put him in the same category as elite pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels.

As outlandish as Bosio’s claim may sound, there are signs Samardzija may actually deserve such acclaim. Conventional wisdom among scouts is that—unless you’re Randy Johnson—you have to carry three plus pitches to be among the true number ones in baseball. Having always been blessed with one of the hardest fastballs in the game (an offering he commanded exceptionally well last season), Samardzija has finally honed his slider into an above-average pitch. He also developed a splitter that proved to be his go-to, put-away pitch when he got two strikes on an opposing hitter.

Last season, the Shark led the Cubs in games started, innings pitched, quality starts, strikeouts and complete games.

According to PITCHf/x data, of starters who tossed at least 150 innings, Samardzija was third in fastball velocity (behind Stephen Strasburg and David Price) at an average of 95.96 mph. But, naturally, you need to be able to do more than just throw a ball hard to succeed; a pitcher needs to convert that heat into strikeouts. Samardzija’s 12.1 percent swinging strike rate and 24.9 percent strikeout rate ranked sixth and seventh (minimum 150 innings), respectively, in all of baseball.

If Samardzija can improve on his career low 7.8 percent walk rate from last season (the league average usually hovers around 8.0 percent), reduce his home runs allowed (he gave up 20 long balls in 2012) and develop that all-important consistency every pitcher needs, he’ll be primed to take another big step in his development.

If and when that time comes, he’ll officially earn the label “The Man.” But the always confident Samardzija isn’t one to shy away from the spotlight.

“That’s what I signed up for,” Samardzija said. “If you don’t want those expectations for yourself, then you may as well go play somewhere else. That’s just kind of a given. There’s going to be pressure, and there’s going to be a lot riding on what you do.”

The Cubs will run out most of their projected starters today at HoHoKam against Giants righty Matt Cain. Cain is coming off another exceptional season, which saw him compile a 16-5 record and a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts. That was good for sixth in the 2012 NL Cy Young voting.

Len Kasper will broadcast today’s game on mlb.com. Here is the lineup:

CF DeJesus
SS Castro
1B Rizzo
LF Soriano
RF Schierholtz
C Navarro
DH Bogusevic
2B Barney
3B Villanueva

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