The first start of the spring for right-handed pitcher Jeff Samardzija was either an audition for the rotation or more experience for preparing for the eighth-inning setup role.
Manager Lou Piniella and his staff have told the former Notre Dame All-American wide receiver that he has as good an opportunity as any of the other candidates vying to win the fourth or fifth starting slot.
The problem for the Cubs management group is figuring out a way to plug in the rotation holes until Ted Lilly gets back, as well as solidifying a somewhat iffy bullpen after the loss of Angel Guzman and the slow recovery of Jeff Gray.
Samardzija understands the Cubs’ needs might find him filling either role.
“I’m just going to go by what they tell me,” Samardzija said. “If they keep running me out there as a starter, I’ll assume I’m a starter. It is unfortunate what’s going on with [the bullpen], but injuries happen and we have a lot of good arms in camp and there’s always an opportunity.”
With all that in mind, Samardzija still knows that there are still plenty of roles to be won on the Cub 12-man pitching staff.
“I want to pitch and I think I can be pretty versatile,” Samardzija said. “Right now, I feel good starting. Next time it will be good to come out and have a starter’s approach instead of coming in in the fifth inning.”
The Indiana native is a much more polished pitcher than he was when he made his major league debut in 2008. At that time, all that Samardzija features was a plus fastball and a splitfinger pitch. Spending a month in winter ball, Samar worked hard at establishing his slider and commanding a curve ball.
“I think I have the confidence that I could do it,” Samardzija said. “It’s hard. Everybody’s out there cut-throat trying to play for a job and once you realize that, once you realize what you need to do to accomplish what you want to accomplish, it’s a little easier. That takes time.”
The Cubs’ quandary is that Samardzija may, indeed, be a strong starting pitcher for the 2010 team, but his powerful arm might be necessary in the bullpen unless the team pulls off a deal for a veteran reliever.
Samardzija threw two shutout innings on Monday against the Oakland Athletics in Phoenix, allowing one hit, one walk while hitting a batter. It was actually a good day for the entire pitching staff. Ryan Dempster in his first spring outing retired all six batters that he faced. Sean Marshall and Tom Gorzelanny both got in two innings as well. The only blemish was a solo home run that Marshall surrendered to Kurt Suzuki and a two-run home run that Gorzelanny gave up to former Cub minor leaguer Josh Donaldson.
Esmailin Caridad pitched the final inning for the Cubs as he continues to try and hammer down the eighth-inning setup role in the bullpen.
Second baseman Mike Fontenot played his first game at shortstop this spring, entering the game as a replacement for starter Ryan Theriot. Fontenot went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and handled the position flawlessly. Piniella said that with Andres Blanco down for the next two weeks that Fontenot will continue to have more playing time at short.