Samardzija could take fast track to bigs
Prospect's stuff, mentality 'way ahead of game,' says Barrett
MESA, Ariz. -- Don't look for Jeff Samardzija in a Chicago Cubs uniform this season. But the former Notre Dame wide receiver, who chose baseball over football, could be in the big leagues quicker than most.
Samardzija is the team's most high-profile prospect, and not just because of the five-year, $10 million contract he signed on Jan. 19. There are seven first-round picks in Cubs camp this spring, including 2006 selection Tyler Colvin. But the New York Times didn't send any reporters to interview any of them.
Samardzija is Notre Dame's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and this spring, he's been shagging fly balls and taking part in pitchers' fielding drills. He was projected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, which is why most teams passed on the right-handed pitcher last June. The Cubs picked him in the fifth round.
"I think when he was signed, our top scouts felt -- assuming he stays healthy and progresses the way they anticipate -- in two years time he could be right here in Wrigley," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Obviously, he has the physical attributes. Plus, he's an intelligent kid and Larry [Rothschild, pitching coach] has talked to him about minor adjustments in his delivery, and he's picked them up well."
Big-time college football is much different from Major League Spring Training. Samardzija was interviewed daily at Notre Dame. In Mesa, there are days when the only people he talks to are his teammates and the clubhouse staff.
"It's 100 percent different," he said of baseball and football. "It's different, the atmosphere is different, but mentally you approach it the same way."
It's hard not to think of Samardzija as a football player. Second baseman Mark DeRosa, who was Penn's quarterback for three years, was looking for a football to throw at Fitch Park so he could see the 6-foot-5, 218-pounder run some routes.
"I haven't been around a whole lot of guys who are football players," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said. "He's the first real high-profile football player. I was impressed with his mentality behind pitching. When you think of Samardzija, if you don't know him, you think of him as a wide receiver. After catching him, it's easy to understand why he was highly touted as a pitcher.
"I'm excited for him," Barrett said. "In Montreal, we called up Chad Cordero and he was in the Minor Leagues for a very short time. You never know what can happen. He's not too far off the right path. He's right there."
Before Barrett caught Samardzija, he asked the young pitcher where he wanted the catcher to set up. Samardzija told him, and told him he throws four-seam fastballs and sinkers.
"As far as mentality and as far as stuff, he's way ahead of the game," Barrett said. "He's got a very good idea."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
"I've always been a believer in this -- and it's hard to do -- but it's nice to have good athletes on the mound," Rothschild said. "In most cases, they stay away from injuries because they can use balance a lot better and get in better positions, and I think for a lot of years, the Braves had a lot of success with guys like this. You take all the guys like that who you can get."
The Cubs may want Samardzija to give up his shoulder pads but not his football mentality.
"We were talking about live [batting practice] and having the mentality that yes, it's your hitters and your teammates but at the same time, you don't want to take away from the edge you want to develop," Barrett said. "When I talked to Samardzija, he was on top of that."
If work ethic is any indication, Samardzija will be in the big leagues soon. After he was drafted, he was assigned to Class A Boise, where he went 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA in five starts. Samardzija made two more starts at Class A Peoria, posting an 0-1 record and 3.27 ERA, before he returned to Notre Dame in August for football practice.
There were many times with Boise and Peoria when Samardzija could be found doing his football-related conditioning drills. Notre Dame players undergo a conditioning drill when they report, and he didn't want football coach Charlie Weis to think he'd been slacking off.
"I knew I had to stay on top of my game," he said. "Either I'd go after or a lot of times, I'd go early. I'd do it on my own. I didn't want to do things on my own when the other guys were there. I just wanted to keep it quiet."
Asked to compare Weis and Piniella, Samardzija laughed. They are polar opposites, yet very much alike.
"One is a little more of an 'in your face' mentality," Samardzija said. "It's just how it is. I don't think I've had any head coaches or managers who are anything alike in any way. It's cool. They're both players' coaches. As a player, that's all you're looking for is someone looking out for you and putting you in the right spot."
His progress will be charted by both Irish and Cubs fans. He made the choice to play pro baseball. Does he have a timetable to get to the big leagues?
"Not really," Samardzija said. "I'm trying to get my arm ready and every time I go out there, I want to put solid innings up. What happens, happens. I want to put myself in the best situation to pitch well. There are so many good guys out there now. What are you going to do? You just have to be excited and watch them play. We have so many great players, you can be a fan yourself. I'm just going to go out and pitch."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.