Cashner, Samardzija eye rotation spots

ST. LOUIS – Repairing the starting rotation in 2012 will be a top priority for the Chicago Cubs. The team’s yet-to-be-named general manager likely will begin his or her tenure looking for answers inside the organization.

Two young pitchers are in the mix as possibilities to fill rotation roles next season.

Andrew Cashner strained his rotator cuff in his first major league start on April 5, and never made it back to the team’s rotation. Cashner has pitched out of the bullpen since returning from the injury in early September. The question for Cashner is whether his role of the future will be in the rotation or in the bullpen.

The free agent market for starting pitchers is thin, Texas Rangers starter C.J. Wilson is the top available pitcher. After Wilson, options are limited. So unless the Cubs can make some astute trades in the offseason, Cashner and Jeff Samardzija could be the team’s best options to round out what has been a problem area for the team in 2011.

As it stands now, Matt Garza is under contract and Ryan Dempster has a $14-million option to return in 2012. That leaves three rotation spots open with the presumed departure of Carlos Zambrano via trade or outright release.

Randy Wells will get another shot in 2012, as will Casey Coleman. But Cashner and Samardzija both are hoping to be a part of the mix next season.

Cashner was originally told he would head to the Arizona Fall League as a starting pitcher. Now the conversation has changed.

“I have no idea on my schedule in Arizona,” Cashner said. “From what I’ve been told now, I’ll go to the Fall League as a reliever and pitch one or two innings every time out. But we’ll see how it goes when I get there.

“They haven’t told me what my future is going to be yet. I’d like to start. I hope to get a chance to start. I feel I can help this team as a starter. But I have to stay healthy first.”

Samardzija, coming off a solid season in the bullpen, is eager to start as well. He has proven to baseball talent evaluators this season that he can pitch in the big leagues.

“He’s really improved since I saw him in May,” Philadelphia Phillies scout Charlie Kerfeld said. “He’s not the same pitcher. This guy’s fastball command and presence have really come along.”

The Cubs will have to decide if Samardzija is going to continue as a late reliever or move to the rotation. The Notre Dame grad has filled both roles since signing a four-year, $10 million contract before the 2008 season.

“I really feel I have evolved as a pitcher,” Samardzija said. “Everything has kind of kicked in for me this year. With the help of [Mike Quade] he’s allowed me to extend out and bounce back when I’ve done poorly.”

For that reason alone, the Cubs have decided to keep Samardzija in the bullpen this season rather than experiment with him in the rotation.

“They wanted me to stay in the bullpen because I had success there,” he said. “Didn’t want to bounce me around anymore. But I’m going into the offseason preparing like I’m a starter. I’ll be doing a whole lot of sets of nine. Everything on my mind will be gearing toward nine innings pitched. I’m going to get my mind and body ready to be a rotation pitcher. That’s what I’m being told and that’s what I’m going for.”