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Tracing Jeff Samardzija's Path from 1st Round NFL Draft Talent to MLB Stardom

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Tracing Jeff Samardzija's Path from 1st Round NFL Draft Talent to MLB Stardom
USA TODAY Sports

How would Jeff Samardzija have panned out in the National Football League, you ask?

Former Notre Dame teammate and current Chicago Bears safety Tom Zbikowski gave Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune an answer to that question last week.

"He would have been awesome," Zbikowski said, adding that his old teammate would have been a cross between Plaxico Burress and Keyshawn Johnson. High praise, that.

But Samardzija isn't playing in the NFL. He surely could have, but he chose to pursue a Major League Baseball career with the Chicago Cubs instead. They drafted him back in 2006 when he was still widely known as the star wide receiver of Charlie Weis' Fighting Irish.

Here we are seven years later, and we can make the following conclusion: Good choice, Jeff.

It didn't look like that was going to be the case for a while there. Samardzija's path from gridiron greatness to diamond greatness wasn't an easy one.

 

2006-2007: A Big Choice to Make

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When the 2006 MLB draft rolled around, the average sports fan didn't know Samardzija as a star pitcher. His pitching exploits weren't what put him on SportsCenter, after all.

Fans knew Samardzija as a damn good wide receiver, and for a damn good reason. He had reeled in 77 receptions for 1,249 yards in the 2005 season, tacking on 15 touchdowns for good measure.

And since Samardzija was 6'5" with good speed, good hands and an obvious ability to make plays, he looked like the kind of player who was going to be catching passes for a looooong time.

By comparison, his pitching didn't seem to be all that special. Samardzija did go 8-2 in 2006 for the Irish, but he also had a merely decent 4.33 ERA and a .272 opponents' batting average. Next to his receiving numbers, those numbers didn't look like much.

Here's a reminder of how good Samardzija was as a football player.

But the MLB draft is not unlike the NFL draft or any other draft, really. Numbers don't matter. Talent matters, and Samardzija had just as much of that on the mound as he did on the gridiron.

The Cubs nabbed Samardzija in the fifth round of the 2006 draft with the 149th overall pick, but he was no ordinary fifth-rounder. Baseball America was of the mind that he could have gone in the first round of the draft had it not been for his ties to Notre Dame football.

Here's an excerpt from BA's scouting report on Samardzija:

Samardzija usually pitches at 91-94 mph with his fastball, but he has touched 99 and Chicago thinks he'll operate in the mid-90s if he focuses on baseball and cleans up his mechanics. His low-80s slider is inconsistent, but it presently grades as average and has plus potential. He's a phenomenal athlete who proved coachable and able to make quick adjustments in his first summer of pro ball. 

And then the closing thought: "[The Cubs] think he'll move quickly if they hang onto him, with one club official comparing him to John Smoltz."

Yeah, that John Smoltz. Quite the comp to live up to.

Samardzija made seven starts in the low minors in 2006, going 1-2 with a 2.70 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. But when the fall came around, it was time for him to trade his baseball cap for a helmet again. He was still a Notre Dame football player and that's not the kind of commitment one easily tosses aside.

Samardzija's 2006 season was another success. He caught 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns, helping to lead the Irish to the Sugar Bowl against the JaMarcus Russell-led LSU Tigers.

Once that game—in which the Irish got crushed 41-14—and the 2006-2007 season were in the books, Samardzija had a decision to make: Continue on with baseball, or prepare for the NFL draft?

The NFL draft was a very real possibility. It's not like Samardzija was some scrub who was going to be lucky if he was a seventh-round pick. The Vaughn article referenced above noted that he was considered by one scout to late-first or early-second round talent.

You'll recall that this was back before the NFL had a strict rookie wage scale, meaning there was potentially good money to be made if Samardzija decided to go into the NFL draft.

Instead, he chose to take the good money the Cubs were offering.

 

2007-2008: Breaking Into Baseball

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Samardzija officially committed to a baseball career in January of 2007 when he signed a five-year deal with the Cubs worth $10 million.

According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Samardzija's deal required that he would have to return his $2 million signing bonus and much of the remaining $10 million if he eventually chose to return to football. If he wanted to get paid, he had to stick around.

Samardzija knew what he was getting into, but he told The New York Times in February of 2007 that he was confident he had made the right decision:

I don’t know, it was just kind of an overall feeling. There’s nothing that’s ever going to match a Saturday or Sunday in football. But I didn’t make the decision based on hype or attention or anything like that. I loved football. But I just felt as a whole, baseball was just a better fit for me.

Samardzija's first full pro season didn't go as smoothly as his string of cameos in 2006. In 30 appearances (26 starts) between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, he posted a 4.57 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. Despite impressive stuff, he only struck out 4.1 batters per nine innings.

Nonetheless, Baseball America was still high on him. The publication rated him as the Cubs' sixth-best prospect after 2007, and its scouting report included this passage:

It's easy to dream on Samardzija, who has size, athleticism, makeup and a nasty fastball. His heater has a rare combination of velocity (low to mid-90s, touching 98 mph) and sink. His slider could also be a plus-plus pitch, though it's inconsistent. He stayed healthy, maintained his velocity and threw strikes in 2007 despite pitching far more than ever before. 

But then, the word of warning: "Samardizja is an enigma, still capable of becoming a frontline starter, a closer or a bust."

In other words, he was a pitching prospect. They're all enigmas right up until they're not.

Samardzija didn't impress in Double-A in 2008, posting a 4.86 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in 16 appearances, 15 of which were starts. He did, however, make some strides at Triple-A with a solid 3.13 ERA in six starts. One of those was a complete game.

Evidently, the Cubs liked what they saw. When the opportunity arose thanks to an injury to Kerry Wood, a former pitching prodigy himself, the Cubs gave Samardzija the call in late July of 2008.

"He's stretched out," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said, via USA Today. "We can use him about any way we want, but I think the best way is to get him in the middle of the ballgame and if he's pitching well, we can get him a little longer."

And Samardzija's thoughts?

"Middle of the summer in Chicago, you can't really ask for anything else."

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Samardzija had a 202 ERA+ in 2008.

Samardzija's debut came on July 25 against the Florida Marlins. He blew a save and the Cubs lost 3-2, but he pitched pretty well in his two innings, allowing only one earned run and striking out two.

"I felt really good coming out for that second inning. My mechanics came together a little more," Samardzija said, via ESPN. "My whole goal here was to go out and throw well and give confidence to the coaches that they can throw me out there in any situation."

The Cubs kept him around for the stretch run, and he ultimately compiled a solid 2.28 ERA over 26 appearances. It was pretty clear that he still had developing to do, though, as he struggled with his control to the tune of a 4.9 BB/9 that inflated his WHIP to 1.41.

Samardzija also allowed two hits and a run in his one and only postseason appearance against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who swept the Cubs in three games in the NLDS.

Baseball America's two cents? That was that Samardzija was still a "work in progress," and the publication noted that not everyone agreed about his potential:

The Cubs would like to continue developing Samardzija as a starter and will do so in Triple-A if they have enough other bullpen arms this spring. They think he can become a frontline starter, though outside observers believe it's more likely that he'll be a top set-up man or closer.

Or maybe not even either one of those.

 

2009-2011: Samardzija Finds His Way

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Despite his decent showing in the majors in 2008, it looked in 2009 and 2010 like Samardzija was going to have a hard time sticking in the majors.

He was ferried back and forth between the minors and the majors both seasons, and his performances in big leagues left much to be desired. In 27 total appearances, he posted a 7.83 ERA and a 1.89 WHIP. Worst of all, he had a 5.9 BB/9.

Five of those 27 appearances were starts. Two came in 2009, in which Samardzija allowed 10 earned runs in 8.1 innings. The other three came in 2010, in which he surrendered 11 earned runs and 14 walks in 16 innings. It was apparent after the last of those, an eight-run stinker against the St. Louis Cardinals, that he wasn't cut out to start.

Did Samardzija even have any right being in the majors at all in those two seasons? That's something he was brutally honest about in an interview with The New York Times this April.

“If we’re being honest, my contract pushed me through the minors,” Samardzija said. “After that first season, it was like I looked around, realized where I was, and it was like, whoa.”

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
There's always a need for good possession receivers in the NFL.

While Samardzija was trying to find his way in the minors in 2010, Gregg Rosenthal of Pro Football Talk even went so far as to wonder whether the former Notre Dame star would reverse course and give the NFL a try:

Samardzija signed a five-year, $10 million contract in January 2007, the terms of which require him to return a $2.5 million signing bonus if at any time he leaves baseball for another sport.  But the contract runs through 2011, with a team-held option for two more seasons.

Though Samardzija said at the time he won’t be returning to football, the possibility that the Cubs may choose not to extend the deal means that, after next season, he’ll be free and clear.

So once 2012 rolls around, Samardzija will need to ask himself whether he can make more money continuing to try to get back to the major leagues or taking a crack at football. Though he’ll be 27 at that point, he will have gone five years without the wear and tear on his body. 

Samardzija went into the 2011 season out of options. For his baseball career to finally turn into something worthwhile, the season was going to have to be a turning point.

"I know at the end of the year, it'll be a different story than what it is now," said Samardzija in January of 2011, via MLB.com. "A lot is to be written, but I'm excited. I feel great, I really do."

He broke camp as a member of the Cubs' bullpen, and then struggled right out of the gate by allowing five earned runs and nine walks in his first six innings. Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk was wondering at the time just what the heck he was doing in the Cubs' bullpen at all.

Lo and behold, Samardzija figured things out and turned into a solid reliever. At the end of July, he had a 3.79 ERA in 48 appearances.

The rest of the way, Samardzija was a dominant reliever. In his final 27 appearances, he posted a 1.26 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .532 OPS. In 28.2 innings, he struck out 27 and walked only 11.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Because nobody busts baseball curses quite like Theo Epstein.

The following offseason, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein away from the Boston Red Sox. The story, according to the great Joe Posnanski, goes that Samardzija went to Epstein and new Cubs manager Dale Sveum with a request and a promise.

Epstein recalled the conversation:

Welcome guys. I just want you to know one thing about me. I will do whatever it takes to help this team. And I think the best way to help this team is by being a starting pitcher. I’m eliminating everything in my life that gets in the way. I’m dumping my girlfriend. I’m moving to Arizona. I just want the chance to show you that I’m a starting pitcher.

Did he actually dump his girlfriend? He told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune that the answer to that question wasn't technically "yes," but Epstein got the gist of the conversation right.

"I just really wanted him to know and the staff know that I was all in with this team," said Samardzija. "I wasn’t going to have any distraction on the outside, and I was committed to being the guy they needed me to be for this team.”

He became just that. And then some.

 

2012-Now: An Ace in the Making

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Samardzija entered spring training in 2012 as a competitor for a spot in the Cubs' starting rotation. He eventually earned a spot, in part thanks to the fact that he had walked only one batter in 20 innings.

In his first start of the season on April 8, Samardzija showed that his strong spring was no fluke. He fell one out shy of throwing a complete game against the eventual NL East champion Washington Nationals, allowing only one earned run while striking out eight and walking exactly nobody.

"He had three good pitches and he was out there grinding,'' Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said, via Yahoo! Sports. ''He was anywhere from 98 to 90 with his fastball and had his split, the occasional cut. He was out there, he was pumping strikes.''

Said the man himself: ''I've talked a good game about wanting to start and made it public. I didn't want to look like an idiot.''

Samardzija managed to avoid looking like an idiot as the season moved along, too. He stuck in the Cubs' rotation, and turned out to be a bright spot in what was otherwise a dismal season.

The Cubs decided late in the season that they were going to shut Samardzija down early due to all the innings he had compiled. His final start of the season came on September 8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he went out with style by throwing the team's first complete game of the season.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Samardzija's complete game against Pittsburgh dropped his ERA to 3.81.

''That was a heck of a way to go out, no doubt about it,'' said Sveum, via Yahoo! Sports.

Sveum also referred to Samardzija as the team's "No. 1 guy."

Samardzija was certainly that in 2012. According to FanGraphs, he had the highest WAR of any pitcher on the Cubs, and he also ranked fourth among all qualified starters with a 9.3 K/9. Better yet, he only walked 2.9 batters per nine innings.

Good control helped Samardzija survive his first full season as a starter, but so did nasty stuff. His average fastball velocity was 95.0 miles per hour, which was second only to American League Cy Young winner David Price among qualified starters.

Samardzija's split-fingered fastball, meanwhile, was one of the best pitches in baseball. He threw it 18.6 percent of the time, and by August he had Ben Duronio of FanGraphs writing: "To say it has been the most effective split-fingered fastball in baseball is not a stretch."

After the season was over, Gordon Wittenmeyer of the Chicago Sun-Times reported in November that the Cubs were eager to sign Samardzija to a long-term deal. General manager Jed Hoyer even admitted that he wanted to keep Samardzija in a Cubs uniform for a long time.

Not a bad turnaround for a guy who was practically begging for a rotation spot just a year earlier.

Samardzija didn't sign anything over the winter, and right about now he should be thankful that he didn't. If he was in line for big bucks before, he's in line for even bigger bucks now.

When Matt Garza went down with an injury in spring training, Sveum jumped the gun and named Samardzija his Opening Day starter about a month before Opening Day was even set to arrive.

Samardzija rewarded his confidence by allowing only two hits and a walk over eight scoreless innings against the Pirates. He struck out nine, and looked darn good doing it.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

That's still the only start Samardzija has won on the young season, but his pitching isn't to blame for his 1-4 record. He owns a solid 3.03 ERA through five starts, with a 10.7 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. He's holding opposing hitters to a .625 OPS.

Point being: Dude's an ace. And in this day and age, aces are getting paid.

Samardzija will get his eventually. He's only going to be in his early 30s when he hits free agency after 2015, but the Cubs could lock him up to a massive extension before then. If he keeps pitching like a No. 1 starter as the season moves along, it's really not hard to imagine him getting a $100 million contract.

If you're an NFL wide receiver, you're only making that kind of money if you're a Calvin Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald. Even then, it's not all guaranteed.

Success in the major leagues wasn't guaranteed when Samardzija decided to commit himself to baseball in 2007. For a period of several years, it eluded him. Just as it often does with many top prospects.

But Samardzija stuck with it and stuck with it, and now he's no longer that guy who could have been a professional football player. He's a guy who was clearly meant to be a baseball player all along.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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