Converting Jeff Samardzija to the Rotation

From all indications, Jeff Samardzija is a near lock to begin the season in the Cubs’ starting rotation. Dale Sveum clearly thinks highly of him, and other candidates haven’t proven themselves this spring quite to the extent that Samardzija has.

With only two weeks remaining in the Cactus League, Samardzija has dominated. He has struck out 8.10 batters per nine innings, but far more impressively, he has yet to walk a batter. The past few seasons, Samardzija has struggled with his command, owning a career 5.30 BB/9 rate. He has always maintained high strikeout rates, and being a reliever, the high walk rates can be easier to swallow (a la Carlos Marmol).

Being a starter now, the high walk totals may make Cubs fans anxious about his transition, but is it safe to assume he’s greatly improved his control?

Under the Jim Hendry administration, Jeff Samardzija was inappropriately rushed through the system, after being given a $10 million contract following his 2006 draft selection. He spent the equivalency of two full seasons in minors before being called up to the majors at the age of 23 in 2008.

Samardzija did well in his brief exposure to the majors, but struggled mightily in 2009 tossing up a 7.53 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP in 20 games, two starts. That season transformed Samardzija from a fan-favorite into an enigma among Cubs fans. He followed 2009 with an even worse 2010 campaign where he posted a 2-2 record in only seven games, three starts, with an 8.38 ERA and a 2.12 WHIP (at Triple-A Iowa in 2010, 11-3 in 35 games, 15 starts, with a 4.37 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP). The book was supposedly closed on Samardzija as a starting pitcher, and possibly even a major leaguer.

Last season, Samardzija displayed his prowess as a solid middle relief option for the Cubs. He roared back with a sub-3.00 ERA (8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP in 75 relief appearances) and helped a bullpen led by Kerry Wood, Sean Marshall and a struggling Carlos Marmol.

Samardzija has always stated his desire to be a starter. Coupled with his strong finish last season and the team’s need for starting pitching, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer decided to give him a chance to earn a spot in the rotation when they took over the organization.

If Samardzija becomes a starter, his fastball (which averaged 95 MPH last season) will almost certainly lose velocity given that he has to save his energy over a greater volume of innings. Before last season, his fastball averaged 93 MPH–still good, but just a touch slower.

Samardzija’s secondary pitches (slider, split-fastball, and cutter) were all above-average according to FanGraphs pitch values. His slider and cutter have made significant strides in becoming solid pitches, possibly being his second and third best. His splitter was considered to be a plus-pitch coming out of college (birthing the thought that he was just a two-pitch pitcher, and thus a reliever), however with the development of third and fourth offerings, he certainly has the arsenal of a model starting pitcher.

Jeff Samardzija hasn’t officially been given a starting job, but he is definitely the front-runner for the fourth spot in the rotation. And while his career, to this point, hasn’t been marked with a lot of consistent success, the strides he made in the off-season and this spring could allow him to become a very good starting pitcher.

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