Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads

Samardzija, Russell among Cubs at crossroads
February 20, 2011, 9:17 pm
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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011Posted: 3:05 PM

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Jeff Samardzija might get more media opportunities than anyone else on the fringes of a major-league roster. There is the football back story, and the probability that you either love or hate Notre Dame.

Samardzija, who has a goatee and long hair that goes to the back of his neck, is also a pretty approachable dude. So reporters will ask him about his preference: Starter or reliever? They will wonder how it felt to watch the Cubs bring up a pitcher from Triple-A Iowa 14 different times between his demotion last April and his September call-up.

Yet Samardzija has never really popped off about the way hes been handled by the organization.

Bury it, he said. Thats kind of just my personality. Im not gonna sit and (complain) about things that happened in the past. Thats not what I do. Its not our jobs here to worry about that. Im really not worried about any of that stuff.

Of course, you could also argue that the 26-year-old right-hander has nothing to complain about. The Cubs, after all, gave him a five-year, 10 million major-league contract to prevent him from jumping to the NFL. That will expire at seasons end, though the Cubs have club options for 2012 and 2013.

Samardzija, who is out of minor-league options, appears ticketed for the bullpen. He went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 35 games 15 starts at Iowa in 2010, another supposed pivotal year for him. He could become the long man.

All I can do is be ready to pitch (and) see where the pieces fall, he said. A lot of things (can) change day-to-day in baseball, not to mention a month, a month-and-a-half. I feel great and just ready to go.

In one week, the Cubs will play their first exhibition game at HoHoKam Park and the rotation will start to spin. Forget the debate about who starts Opening Day Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are booked for April 1-3.

The real intrigue is who emerges as the fourth and fifth starters. They started throwing live batting practice for the first time on Sunday at Fitch Park, in the middle of a driving rainstorm. It felt as chilly as an early-season game at Wrigley Field.

Carlos Silva is already on record saying that he thinks he deserves one spot. Randy Wells has made 59 starts for the Cubs across the past two seasons. The organization has great faith in Andrew Cashner and his ability to develop into a front-line starter.

Braden Looper and Todd Wellemeyer have long resumes that detail more than 17 years of major-league service time combined. But they are working on minor-league deals.

James Russell and Casey Coleman are two pitchers drafted and developed by the organization. They, like Samardzija across the past three years, could be stuck between Chicago and Iowa, for reasons beyond their control.

Russell is being stretched out because the Cubs do not have any other left-handed options for the rotation. At 25, he wants to start, and says he has no worries about leaving the relief role he grew into last year. What if hes ready, but theres no room?

Youre not only talking about the ballclub, but his future, manager Mike Quade said. (Do) you scrap it? Its just an important decision, both for the organization and for the kids mindset. Russell will do whatever we ask. Thats just the way he is. And thats why you feel OK doing this.

Russell could still be in play for a bullpen spot.

I want to start in the big leagues, Russell said. I just figured that was my calling. But if they want to keep me in the bullpen, I have no problem with it. I will be the long man. Ill come out, eat innings up and do whatever. I want to be playing for the Cubs.

Coleman won Quades first game as a big-league manager and went 4-2 with a 3.33 ERA in eight starts for the Cubs last season. The 23-year-old walked into the room more certain of himself, while trying not to make any waves.

Youre a lot more comfortable, but not to the point where youre trying to act like youre established, Coleman said. It does a lot for your confidence. But at the same time you still have to work hard and treat it like: Im going to keep my mouth shut and be here on time and thats it.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.