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Improved Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija hasn’t left the rebuilding

The Cubs are finding they can rely right-hander Jeff Samardzijafter his solid first half.  |  John J. Kim~Sun-Times

The Cubs are finding they can rely on right-hander Jeff Samardzija after his solid first half. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 15, 2011 12:34AM

When the Cubs talk about player development and reshaping this underachieving team into a contender with homegrown players, they’re talking about guys such as Jeff Samardzija.

That’s right, Samardzija. The guy many wrote off as a bust before he quietly and consistently put together his best 90-game stretch in the majors this season — a stretch that has the Cubs looking at him as perhaps even their next Sean Marshall or Carlos Marmol.

Obviously, All-Star kid shortstop Starlin Castro and second baseman Darwin Barney are jewels moving forward, along with fast-rising outfield prospect Brett Jackson and rehabbing pitcher Andrew Cashner.

But Samardzija’s path to this point not only underscores the commitment the Cubs are making to the internal rebuilding process, but it also highlights the imperfect, rarely straight-line progress of young players as they establish themselves in the majors.

‘‘Compare now to the first month of the year, and he’s made huge strides,’’ pitching coach Mark Riggins said. ‘‘We’re going to have to have a setup guy for the future and maybe a closer for the future here in a few years. And he has that ability to do that. That’s hard to find.’’

How strong can Samardzija finish, and just what can the Cubs rely on him to do by then? That could be as important as how Castro, Barney and other young players answer the same questions.

This is what the final 70 games of this season figure to be all about as the Cubs open their post-break schedule against the Florida Marlins, a franchise that has defined itself through player development. Between now and the end of the month, the Cubs will be in full trade-talk mode, poised to move a position player or three to create space for late-season auditions as they gear up for next year.

As for the pitching staff, much of what’s in play for next year is already on the roster, including the former Notre Dame football All-American who finally looks like a reliable major-league pitcher.

‘‘I don’t want to get ahead of myself and look toward next year when we still have 60, 70 games left this season,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘But for me personally, I really like how the season’s gone, just having taken those steps in the right direction and becoming an overall better pitcher.’’

He still has too many walks, though he has reduced his rate. But he has been one of the two or three most effective relievers in the bullpen this year, going 5-4 with a 3.48 ERA, including just one run allowed in his last seven appearances and just three runs in his last 16.

Considering he was out of contract options when he went to spring training — a perform-or-bust crossroads for the $10 million prospect — the progress has been especially impressive.

‘‘He’s starting to put together some consistency, which allows you to depend on [him] instead of just putting him in when we’re losing all the time,’’ Riggins said. ‘‘He’s a dependable guy that we have confidence in when we have a lead in the sixth, seventh, eighth inning, whatever role comes up for that day.’’

Samardzija, 26, has found success in dropping his curveball and focusing on the slider for his breaking ball. He also has shown major improvement at holding runners.

But the biggest source of success might be the fact that the Cubs have left him in a relief role even as they faced a dire need for starters earlier this year. That’s in contrast to the swingman role and the shuttling between Class AAA and the big leagues since he broke into the majors in 2008.

‘‘Dude, after what’s happened the last couple of years, it’s definitely been a breath of fresh air,’’ he said, ‘‘just to worry about pitching and not worry about where I’m going to be pitching, what I’m going to be doing when I get that. ‘Am I going to be in the big leagues? Am I going to be in AAA?’ It’s tough to keep concentrating on just baseball when all that’s going on.’’

There’s a big part of Samardzija that still thinks about starting.

‘‘But I also understand, as we found out this year, that the bullpen’s a very, very important role,’’ he said. ‘‘And to be on the same page with them, saying I want to pitch every day, any time that I can, has also helped me out a lot.’’

Riggins said the Cubs have no plans to switch Samardzija’s role again at this point.

‘‘There’s always a chance,’’ he said, ‘‘but, realistically, no.’’

As for the redemptive powers of success this season?

‘‘Yes and no,’’ Samardzija said. ‘‘Let’s just say it always feels better to do well. To justify yourself and all the hard work you put into it, and how much I care about this team and doing well for this team, that’s what feels good. . . . We’re not done yet, but just thus far.’’

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