COMMENTARY | Being named an opening-day starter ensures a pitcher of being an ace about as much as a movie opening No. 1 at the box office ensures it of being critically acclaimed.
There's a lot of garbage out there making it to the big screen, especially in the lean months following the Oscars hangover, which lines up with the start of the Major League Baseball season. And while Chicago Cubs opening-day arms over the last 10 years have often been high on ratings and earnings, the quality has often been lacking, the storyline depressing. After a promising summer in 2012, Jeff Samardzija has a chance to change that.
The last time someone not named Carlos Zambrano or Ryan Dempster took the ball on opening day for the Cubs was 2004. The Cubs are 3-5 in those games and have lost the last three. They allowed five-plus runs in five of those openers.
Samardzija arrived in the Cubs organization with the expansive platform of a box office hit. He was familiar with filling the lead role, but in a different sport. He was Brady Quinn's big target in the Notre Dame passing game, and the Cubs persuaded him to pass on a NFL career after taking him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft.
He surfaced for a major-league debut in 2008 as a hard-throwing reliever with the straightforward approach of an action flick. He was a fastball-slider-splitter righty who wasn't confident in his secondary pitches and put a lot of guys on base because of it.
Since then, his career has taken on a more complex storyline. He's focused on developing a cutter as a fourth pitch, and at times, the results weren't exactly of the superhero script. But after moving into the rotation in 2012, he finished in the top 20 in the National League in strikeouts (180), WHIP (1.22) and batting average against (.240).
Another pitcher in Chicago has gone down a similar bullpen-to-rotation path toward the opening-day spotlight. The Cubs certainly would like to see their converted reliever near the success of Chicago White Sox lefty Chris Sale, who finished sixth in the 2012 American league Cy Young voting.
With Matt Garza still out, it's easy to look at Samardzija's place at the top of the rotation as one he fell into as the only viable option on a patchy Cubs staff. Such circumstance shouldn't increase expectations. But at the same time, in a year likely to be defined by progress for the Cubs, Samardzija is ahead of the team as a whole. As an effective reliever in 2011 and a starter in 2012, he has already gone through the modest gains the rest of the club is after.
Looking at Samardzija this spring as a by-default opening-day starter is wrong. The reality of the situation is he has earned it and, Garza or not, Samardzija deserves to have the ball on opening day. Not only did he earn it, but he was also one of the best pitchers in the NL from the start of July through the end of his season.
In July, August and September, Samardzija made it through the fifth inning in each of his 13 starts and went seven-plus innings in nine of them with 10 quality starts. He allowed over two earned runs three times in those 13 starts, and his ERA fell from 5.05 at the start of July to 3.81 to end the year. He walked more than three batters once and struck out seven-plus batters eight times. He went 4-6 in that stretch almost entirely by no fault of his own with a 2.58 ERA and 1.02 WHIP.
The next step is following through on that consistency. A three-month stretch is one thing. A full season like Sale put up is another, but it's the only step remaining for the pitcher the Cubs have invested seven years of time and money in developing.
The Cubs shut Samardzija down after a Sept. 8 start for precautionary reasons. He'd surpassed 170 innings in his first season as a starter, and there was no playoff push to extend him through. It was a cliffhanger of sorts, and the story picks up again April 1 in Pittsburgh with a 1:35 p.m. show time.
It's not a stretch to expect good things, and if the really good things pick up where they left off last year, neither is his name being thrown around during award season.
- Sports & Recreation
- Jeff Samardzija
- Chicago Cubs