If Jeff Samardzija winds up starting for the Cubs on Opening Day, no one will savor the irony more than Samardzija himself.
“That would be a 180, for sure, right?” he said when I asked about that possibility at last month’s Cubs convention. “To go from maybe wondering if you’re going to put a Cubs jersey on two years ago to maybe being the opening-day starter, it means a lot to me.
“I’m not a selfish guy, not when I’m out there. But I have goals. I have things that I want to shoot for, things that are important to me when it comes to that. Obviously, the team comes first. If we’re a better team if I pitch second or third behind a lefty or whatever, then so be it. That’s the way it goes. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have it in the back of your mind that you want to strive for something like that.”
To say that the 28-year-old Samardzija has come full circle in his Cubs career would make anybody dizzy because there have been too many circles to count.
Ÿ Samardzija was a surprise fifth-round pick in 2006 out of Notre Dame, where he was known more for his skills catching the ball as a football wide receiver than he was throwing it as a pitcher in baseball.
Ÿ Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry signed him to a multiyear major-league deal to keep him away from pro football.
Ÿ Samardzija bounced between starter and reliever, major leagues and minor leagues, before finally putting in a full big-league season in 2011.
Ÿ New management took over and didn’t tender Samardzija a contract last off-season before re-signing him to a lesser deal.
Ÿ Samardzija then went out and went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and a WHIP of 1.22 before being shut down after his final start of the season because the Cubs were worried about his innings pitched during his first full year as a major-league starter.
Naturally, there was no prying the ball from Samardzija’s right hand on Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh, where he tossed the team’s only complete game of the season in a 4-3 Cubs victory.
Samardzija’s season ended with him having pitched 174 innings. Although Samardzija played the good soldier, he’d rather have been out there pitching to finish the season.
“I want to pitch, period,” he said “But again, I don’t make those decisions. We answer those questions in the future, at the end of this year, at the end of the year after that. If I’m strong and healthy and ready to go, then obviously, it’s going to be a great decision.
“I don’t ever think when you’re healthy and not playing that it’s a good decision. I don’t care what sport it is, anywhere you’re at. You only get so many opportunities to play the sport you’re playing. You need to take advantage of every chance you get. But I do understand why they did it and the reasoning for it. Because I’m a reasonable man, I understand that that’s OK.”
As spring training gets under way, Samardzija has a roster spot assured, as opposed to every year in the past, when he had to fight for a job.
Now a veteran, Samardzija says he knows he’ll be looked at to lead, both on and off the field. But with a nod toward his recent past, he says there’s no pressure in that.
“I tell you what, it’s not going to be any more pressure than having to have 12 clean innings in spring training to make the team,” he said. “What I went through last year and the year before that essentially kind of hardened me, just taught me to learn to deal with myself and getting myself ready to play and the team ready, too.
“The older you get, the more veteran of a role you have, it’s part of it. It’s an important part for me, going out there every fifth day and making sure this team gets off to a hot start. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the first one to tell you it’s my fault.”
As for the future, Samardzija says he’d like to remain a Cub. Free agency won’t come until after three more seasons, and Samardzija told reporters Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz., that another long-term contract can wait.
“We were talking, and we both have the same interests in mind,” he said. “We both want me to be here, and we want to be a part of this team for a long time. When we feel we’re on the same page with that, then we’ll get it done. That was off-season talk, that’s what happened at the end of the year.
“I still haven’t proven myself to where I want to be as a player. I was happy with last year, but I don’t want to stay there. I want to improve and get better. I think the more I show them that, the more comfortable they’ll be with getting a deal done. (Talks) are not even close to the front of the burner right now. It’s so far on the back, it’s history, to tell you the truth.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.