Samardzija has a big chip on his shoulder

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Samardzija has a big chip on his shoulder

SURPRISE, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija still looks the same, with long hair, a goatee and the 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound frame the Cubs think can handle 200 innings.

There are subtle differences. Several times manager Dale Sveum has described Samardzija as on a mission, words that usually dont really mean much in spring training, but you do notice that the swagger is back.

Thats 100 percent correct, Samardzija said. I hold a lot of stuff inside. I dont say too much stuff, but I have a big chip on my shoulder, especially the older I get and I slowly see my football skills diminishing. I got to understand that I got to start pitching good. It means something to me.

At the age of 27, Samardzija believes he belongs in the rotation. He helped his cause by breezing through three scoreless innings in Wednesdays 6-4 win over the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium. He faced nine batters, struck out three and then joked about football afterward.

Thats telling because Samardzija one of the most accessible players on the team could sometimes get defensive when reporters brought it up in the past.

That topics been a rollercoaster, Samardzija said. There are times where I dont mind it at all and I have fun with it and there are times where it really cuts me. I felt like I made that decision based on the right reasons. From my heart, thats what I wanted to do play baseball.

So I never felt like I had to or needed to defend myself. I just felt like people should understand that it was for the right reasons, when the truth is you got to prove to them that its the right reasons.

Like Ive always said, Im trying to be the Cubs pitcher and not the former Notre Dame football player.

Sveum who once turned down a football and baseball scholarship to Arizona State coming out of high school sees value in Samardzijas experience. It takes guts.

To perform on a football field, especially at a major-college level, is a tremendous amount of pressure, Sveum said. Millions of people watching on TV, let alone the 100,000 people (in the stands) on Saturday. The training and the work ethic and the shape you have to be in to play at that level is just off-the-charts.

Samardzija may have been rushed to the big leagues in 2008, but the Cubs couldnt resist his potential in the middle of a pennant race. He spent most of the next two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, tinkering with his mechanics and developing his pitches.

It might not have been the best route, but like I said before, it was the necessary route at the time, Samardzija said. Lou (Piniella) and Jim (Hendry) and all those guys that were here you got to win just to keep your job. In 08 and 09, we were trying to win. And if they thought that me being in the bullpen in the big leagues was the best way to win, then thats how its going to go.

People tend to forget that were just pawns here. Were just the guys on the chess board. Everyone else is making the moves.

Samardzija finally began to see results last season, going 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings out of the bullpen. Theo Epsteins front office sees his velocity, build and confidence and thinks this could be a legitimate starter.

The biggest thing this regime has done is come in and instilled confidence in me, which has been huge, Samardzija said, because Ive battled these last few years just trying to prove that Im where Im supposed to be.

Ever since Day 1, these guys (have) told me that theyre putting a lot on me, theyre expecting a lot out of me and that they know I can do it. Sometimes (thats) what you need to push you over the edge.

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

Brett Anderson’s personality mixing well with Cubs: ‘I don’t hate anybody yet’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Maddon's T-shirt slogans can get a little old at times, but the Cubs manager found a new audience in Brett Anderson, who liked the idea of "Be Uncomfortable" after signing a one-year, prove-it deal with the defending champs.

"It's been awesome so far," Anderson said. "That's my running joke – we're a month into it now or whatever it is – and I don't hate anybody yet.

"That's a testament to the group as a whole – and maybe me evolving as a person."

Yes, Anderson's sarcasm, social-media presence and groundball style fits in with a team built around short-term pitching and Gold Glove defense. The if-healthy lefty finished his Cactus League tour on Saturday afternoon by throwing four innings (one unearned run) during a 7-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies in front of 13,565 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Anderson will open the season as the No. 4 starter after a camp that has been remarkably low-key and drama-free.

"I'm kind of cynical by nature, but it's a fun group to be a part of," Anderson said, "(with) young guys that are exciting and happy to be here. And then obviously the mix of veterans, too, that are here with intentions of winning another World Series."

To make that happen, the pitching staff will have to again stay unbelievably healthy. Anderson rolled with a general question about how he physically feels now compared to where he's usually at by this time of year.

"Obviously better than last year, because I was walking with a gimp and all that stuff," said Anderson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a bulging disk in his lower back last March. "No, my body feels good, my arm feels good and you're getting into the dog days of spring training where you're itching to get to the real thing."

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."