Theo Epsteins first impression of Jeff Samardzija: Man on a mission.
The Cubs will be putting Samardzija front and center as they contemplate life after Ryan Dempster, figure out what to do with Matt Garza and go to the next phase of their rebuilding project at Clark and Addison.
The Cubs are back in Arizona, which Samardzija found to be the perfect distraction-free zone last offseason. He moved back into his place near the teams complex in Mesa, to do all the things he outlined for Epstein when he made his pitch to be in the rotation.
When Samardzija takes the ball Friday night against the Diamondbacks, he will have accounted for 78 innings, or 10 less than he threw last season out of the bullpen. This is what he wanted all along, why he went out to the desert.
I actually kind of feel stronger than I did in the beginning, to tell you the truth, Samardzija said. I really feel like Im hitting that midseason point where the arm really starts coming along, and all that work youve done in the offseason starts really kicking in right about now.
Samardzija is 5-5 with a 4.04 ERA and 78 strikeouts against 28 walks. Epstein believes the art will be in finding the consistency, because Samardzija is so athletically gifted.
As advertised, Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. Great arm.
Samardzija is 27, while Garza is 28, and together they are two big personalities who could front a rotation with ideas about October.
Garza says hed only be worried if his name wasnt in trade rumors, that Chicago would be a great place for his kids to grow up, but ultimately Ill pitch on the freaking moon.
Garza wont be a free agent until after the 2013 season. His main point is that its out of his control. But couldnt he go to the Cubs and try to make a commitment?
The conversations of that nature between the player and the club are always best kept confidential, Epstein said. Weve had an ongoing dialogue about a number of things. We have an open-door policy with any of our players about anything, on the field or off the field, business or personal.
Last offseason, Samardzija got an audience with the front office at a time when several other now ex-Cubs say they got nothing but silence.
The new regime change meant a lot to Samardzija, which is ironic, because the University of Notre Dame football star had become a signature signinglightning rod for the Jim Hendry administration.
It wasnt hard to interpret Samardzijas state of mind in spring training, when he cut off a reporter wondering what if the rotation thing doesnt work out: The worst question Ive ever heard.
And Samardzija turned around another question from a Boston writer who had traveled to Arizona to work on an Epstein profile, saying he wasnt a big East Coast fan, that he was a big Hendry guy and the new bosses would have big shoes to fill.
The biggest thing that helped us was the makeup, said assistant general manager Randy Bush. As he struggled to figure it out at the major-league level, the one thing that we knew was how tough he is, and how competitive he is, and I think that has helped him transition into what hes becoming.
Bush has watched Samardzija since Notre Dame, where his former University of New Orleans teammate, Paul Mainieri, used to be the baseball coach before moving on to Louisiana State University.
Bush, who was hired by Hendry, speaks with authority, because he has institutional memory and played on two World Series winners with the Minnesota Twins, an organization known for player development.
(Samardzijas) not going to make the same mistakes over and over again, Bush said. Hes just going to learn. Physically, hes got everything you look for to be that kind of guy you can hopefully tee up there for 200 innings a year.
Everyone talked about the 85 mph splitter that got away from Samardzija and smashed into Paul Konerkos face last month at Wrigley Field. But the day after, Bush spoke with Samardzija about the previous at-bat, the 95 mph, 1-0 fastball he left middle in for Konerko, which was crushed for a two-run homer that helped lift the White Sox.
I think a lot of the struggles (Jeff) went through the last few years was (just because) hes still young as a pitcher, Bush said. I remember shaking my head thinking: Why would you try to beat Konerko in there? The risk-reward just isnt there. And I (told him) those kind of things, youre just going to learn.
Samardzija was strong enough to play Sundays in the NFL, and the thought is that he will pitch somewhere around 180 innings this season, though theres not a hard limit.
Or, as manager Dale Sveum said: Were not going to kill him, put it that way. So theres going to be another interesting conversation.
I understand that they have a plan with me, (which) is fine, Samardzija said. I would like to pitch every fifth day, no matter what. I think I can physically do it and I handle it, but its not my call. So Im going to pitch when they tell me to pitch, and when I go out there, Im going to give it everything I have and lay it all out there.