MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija cut off a reporter asking about the possibility of going to the bullpen if the rotation doesnt work out: The worst question Ive ever heard.
Samardzija didnt even crack a smile. The deadpan delivery was perfect. But it does speak to his confidence level and state of mind. What a difference a year makes.
Its up to me to go out and earn, Samardzija said Monday. I want to put no doubt in their minds that pitching every fifth day is whats best for this team.
The Cubs are in a different place now, and they are going to give Samardzija a very long look. Twelve months ago, he was out of options, and the Notre Dame star had done little to justify his 10 million contract.
It was an eye-opening experience, Samardzija said, just because Ive never been in that situation in my life (before). To come out and be on the ropes and really have to perform was big.
Samardzija responded with a breakthrough season out of the bullpen, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings, showing people why former general manager Jim Hendry convinced the All-American wide receiver to give up on the NFL.
As soon as Theo Epstein took over, he made it a priority to add depth to the rotation, a weakness that destroyed last season and led to sweeping changes at Clark and Addison.
Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm are essentially locks. Chris Volstad will likely be the fourth starter. That leaves Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Samardzija among a group fighting for the last spot.
At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Samardzija is built to handle 200 innings, and hes not afraid of the bright lights. While Chicago came down with Theo-mania, he purposely spent almost all of the offseason working out in Arizona.
Hes obviously a different guy than he was a year or two years ago, manager Dale Sveum said. His confidence level is at a peak level right now and hes on a mission.
Samardzija knows how the hype machine works, how easily you can go from being the next big thing to a total bust. He actually thought the Epstein-to-Chicago coverage wasnt that over-the-top, because the step-by-step rebuilding process makes sense.
Samardzija respects the former Red Sox executives running things now and believes in their game plan. But hes still loyal to where hes from and the guy who signed him. Heres how he turned around a question about what he knew about Epstein before:
Nothing, I wasnt a Red Sox fan growing up, Samardzija said. Im still really not a big East Coast fan. Im a Chicago guy and was pretty oblivious to all that. But obviously I knew of them and what theyve done and the way they approach things. (Even with that resume), for me personally, they have big shoes to fill after Jim left.
Samardzija understands the hard work ahead, that you dont hire Epstein and then automatically begin planning the parade down Michigan Avenue.
It seems like Samardzijas been around forever, but hes still only 27 years old. He was fast-tracked to Wrigley Field and got on the 97-win team that was supposed to win it all in 2008.
Samardzija spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, while the Cubs devolved into a fifth-place team. He was asked if he would have been better off with a defined role and the same pitching coach the past few years, a question that can never really be answered.
Looking back on it, did we have the best plan? Probably not, Samardzija said. (But) the most important thing was winning games at that time. You cant sit and tell Lou (Piniella) that we need to save this kid for three years.
Skip, Jim, all those guys wanted to win that year. Thats professional ball. To have a plan is one thing, but sometimes you got to go off the plan a little bit. I just had to learn on the fly, man, and its definitely been a learning experience.
But Im very grateful for everything thats happened and put me in the situation that I am here. You go through some struggles and you come out after that and usually youre a little bit stronger.