Hot Off the Presses: March Vine Line featuring the Shark
The second act is always much harder than the first.
The first time around, you generally have the element of surprise on your side; there are few expectations; and, frankly, anyone can get lucky once (just ask former White Sox “ace” Esteban Loaiza).
Which is why this should be an interesting season for Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija.
It’s not like Samardzija came out of nowhere. If you weren’t familiar with him as an athletically gifted top baseball recruit, you probably knew him as an All-American wideout at Notre Dame. By the time the Cubs signed the big right-hander to a five-year, $10 million contract in 2006, he was practically a household name.
But Samardzija didn’t exactly set the world afire in Chicago. He pitched well enough in the minor leagues to advance, and looked like a world-beater when he first came up in 2008 at just 23 years old. But after he posted a 2.28 ERA in 26 games out of the bullpen that season, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
In 2009, the Shark threw up a 7.53 ERA in 20 games (two starts). He followed that up with an 8.38 big league ERA in 2010, a season spent mostly in the minors.
If you do a Google search of Samardzija’s name from around 2011, you get headlines like “Are the Cubs Stuck with Samardzija?”, “As a Pitcher, Samardzija Makes a Great Wide Receiver” and “Is Jeff Samardzija a Bust?”
What a difference a few years make. Samardzija came out of the gates fast in 2011 and never let up, posting an 8-4 record and a 2.97 ERA in 75 relief appearances. But his goal was to be in a big league rotation, so while everyone else had him penciled in as a bullpen fixture—and a possible future closer—Samardzija spent the offseason in Mesa, Ariz., trying to prove he could succeed as a starter.
Flash forward one year, and the headlines look a little different. Now they read, “Why Jeff Samardzija Should be the Cubs’ Opening Day Starter” and “Samardzija Has the Stuff to Be a True No. 1.”
Though Samardzija was shut down after 174.2 innings to preserve his arm and posted only a 9-13 record, he put up a 3.81 ERA in his first year in the rotation (the league average was 3.94). And there were games in which he looked as dominant as anyone in baseball, including his first and last starts of the season. Now people are talking about the Shark as a legitimate ace, and pitching coach Chris Bosio calls him one of the five or six best arms in the game.
“To go from wondering if you’re ever going to put on a Cubs jersey again two years ago to maybe being the Opening Day starter, it means a lot to me,” Samardzija said.
This month, we sat down with the Cubs fireballer to check on his mindset heading into his second year in the rotation. It’s a lot different going into camp knowing you have a job. But I think it’s safe to say: Jeff Samardzija does not get complacent.
We also look down the pipeline at how the Cubs are developing the next wave of Samardzijas. In January, the organization brought 12 of the brightest prospects in the system to Chicago to give them a feel for what life is like in the big leagues. We talked to Director of Player Development Brandon Hyde and several of the Cubs’ top prospects about how the organization preaches the Cubs Way from top to bottom to ensure that players are ready to go once they arrive at Wrigley Field.
Finally, Cactus League games are underway, and that means it’s almost the end of an era in Mesa. After 17 years at HoHoKam Stadium—and 35 years at that same location—the Cubs are saying goodbye to their spring home. We look back at what the old ballpark has meant to the team and look forward to the new park, which will be ready for the first pitch of Spring Training in 2014.