MESA, Ariz. -- Maybe one day, Jeff Samardzija will be able to blend in and be just a baseball player.
Well, maybe not, since Samardzija stands 6-feet-5, weighs 225 and sports that mane of long hair.
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But ever since the Cubs made him their fifth-round selection in the 2006 draft, Samardzija has been decidedly well above the radar.
First, there's the whole Notre Dame football thing. Samardzija was a star wide receiver at that storied institution and many felt he'd be a high-round pick in the NFL.
If Samardzija was a baseball gem, he certainly was an unpolished one at that time, and his road to big-league baseball was going to be a longer one than his road to the NFL would have been.
Then, there was the multiyear major-league contract former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry gave Samardzija to forgo football.
So naturally, anything Samardzija did was going to attract attention, good or bad. Early on, it wasn't always good, as Samardzija bounced between the major leagues and minor leagues and between being a starter and a reliever.
But after a solid season last year out of the Cubs bullpen, maybe, just maybe, this will be the year Samardzija becomes just another pitcher, whether it's a starter or a reliever.
"I think in a perfect world, yeah, that would be the way to do it until you've earned that attention or whatever," he said after a spring-training workout. "The truth is, it is what it is. You're going to get asked whatever questions are the topic of the day. I understand how it is. But like I said when I first signed, it's really been a goal of mine in baseball to where that's the topic of conversation day in and day out. I think we're getting there.
"The thing is, I like to lay under the radar. It's hard to do when you're under the spotlight of professional baseball. I believe you've got to earn what you get, especially when it comes to accolades."
Samardzija started earning some of those accolades last year, his first full season in the big leagues. He made a career-high 75 appearances, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and a tidy WHIP (walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched). He posted a second-half ERA of 2.23 after having a 3.48 ERA in the first half.
A breakout season?
"I think it was reassurance that we are on the right path," he said. "That's the biggest thing about last year. All the hard work I was doing the previous years in Triple-A up and down from the big leagues, it really justified that I was doing the right work, which always feels good.
"You don't want to be doing different things that in the long run are not helping you out. At least I knew I was with the right people and working on the right things to put me in the direction that I feel I should be going."
This spring, the 27-year-old Samardzija is in camp hoping to win a starting job in a crowded field. Samardzija termed it "the worst question I've ever heard" when another reporter mentioned the bullpen being the fallback position, and manager Dale Sveum said Samardzija has a power body that's ideal for starting.
"He's obviously a different guy than he was a year ago or two years ago," Sveum said. "His confidence level is at a peak level right now and he's on a mission right now."
Samardzija said he doesn't want his intentions to be misread.
"Personally, it's not a selfish thing that I want to start," he said. "I just really feel like I can really help this team out in areas where starting pitching is important: eating up innings, being consistent, keeping your team in the game. And I enjoy being an athlete out there as a starter. I enjoy fielding my position. I enjoy hitting and bunting. I just want to play baseball. I just feel that as the athlete I am, I can bring that aspect to the game every fifth day."
Samardzija found success as a starter after being sent to Class AAA Iowa in 2010. In addition to control, the knock against him always had been that he didn't have the extensive repertoire to be a starter. He said he spent a lot of time looking at video of his pitches this off-season and that he's added a "hard cutter" to a mix that includes an above-average fastball, a slider and a split-finger pitch.
"I'm trying to get separation between my slider and my cutter speed-wise," he said. "Obviously, that will come more as camp comes, but adding that pitch can be something else I can mix in the second, third or fourth time through the lineup. It will help me get deeper into games. That's my ultimate goal as a starter, throw as many innings as I can throughout the season.
"After being in the bullpen all year last year and seeing how important that is for your starters to pitch deep into games, it really gave me a chip on my shoulder to be that guy."