It’s vision accomplished with Jeff Samardzija at last paying off for Cubs
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org May 13, 2012 8:36PM
MILWAUKEE, WI - MAY 13: Jeff Samardzija #29 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers during the game at Miller Park on May 13, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Updated: June 15, 2012 10:52AM
MILWAUKEE — Pretty impressive how the Cubs’ new front office and field staff took a long first look at Jeff Samardzija and turned him into one of the best starting pitchers in the National League.
Even more impressive?
‘‘We kind of envisioned this out of him,’’ scouting director Tim Wilken said of the thinking in 2006 that led to the Cubs drafting a Notre Dame football star in the fifth round and committing $10 million to signing him to pitch.
It’s easy to say now, after the Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers 8-2 on Sunday to improve to 6-1 when Samardzija starts. But that’s what Wilken and then-general manager Jim Hendry were saying in ’06.
Six years later, during a season in which it’s become chic among Cubs observers to rip all things predating Theo Epstein, Samardzija is a shining example of some of the things the previous regime did especially well. His performance so far this season has influenced thoughts about how quickly the Cubs might rebuild into a contender — and, by extension, the importance of signing Matt Garza to a multiyear deal that would create a formidable 1-2 punch in the rotation.
‘‘Most definitely, it makes you feel good,’’ Wilken said. ‘‘There were a lot of naysayers. A lot of the prognosticators, they took their shots, too. All of a sudden, we got a different guy out there.’’
Thanks to exceptional athletic ability, even greater dedication to the conversion from reliever and an above-average cut fastball that Class AAA pitching coach Mike Mason taught him, Samardzija (4-1) leads Cubs pitchers in wins (four), innings (432/3) and strikeouts (45).
‘‘I faced him in spring training, and nothing’s really straight,’’ teammate Reed Johnson said. ‘‘He’s sinking it and cutting it, throwing splits. You can tell by the reaction of the other hitters and the at-bats that good hitters are taking — he’s keeping them off balance.’’
Samardzija didn’t have his sharpest stuff Sunday but still navigated a tough Brewers lineup well enough to get through five innings with the lead, strike out six, lower his ERA to 2.89 and, for the third time this season, help the Cubs follow a loss with a win.
‘‘You want to come out and pitch strong any time, but certain times are more important than others,’’ he said.
‘‘He might be the next one to throw a no-hitter,’’ former teammate Sean Marshall said after watching Samardzija throttle the Cincinnati Reds two starts earlier.
Wilken’s 2006 draft had come under criticism in recent years because of first-rounder Tyler Colvin’s 2011 slump and Samardzija’s inconsistency into early last season. Colvin has since rebounded well after being traded to Colorado, where he has a .907 OPS.
‘‘Now it’s looking like that was definitely an impact draft,’’ said Wilken, who drafted Cy Young winners Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter while running the Toronto Blue Jays’ drafts. Wilken pointed out that those big success stories took five and six years, respectively, to develop from draft day to first big season in the majors.
Samardzija has a long way to go to earn comparisons to those guys. For now, he takes pride in proving some of the skeptics wrong.
‘‘Tim and Jim and [assistant GM] Randy [Bush] were three of my biggest supporters from Day 1,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘Give a guy $10 million, and if it turns out to be nothing, that doesn’t look too good.
‘‘You feel a little responsibility for those guys, too, that you want to prove them right, that they were making the right decisions. It would be nice to say that it was a good sign for them in the end.’’