By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Five years ago, when the Cubs – and $10 million bucks – convinced Notre Dame’s Jeff Samardzija to give up catching the pigskin in favor throwing the horsehide, Chicago general manager Jim Hendry said the team projected the lanky, long-locked hurler to one day to be a “high-end starter.”
On Sunday, the onetime wide receiver strung together a series of goose eggs on Easter to dazzle in his 2012 debut and make it appear as if that day has perhaps finally arrived.
Against the Washington Nationals, Samardzija fell just one out shy of a complete game, pitching the Cubs to a much-needed 4-3 victory. For the day, he allowed three runs on four hits and no walks, throwing 110 pitches. And if not for Starlin Castro’s throwing error in the ninth inning, Samardzija would have allowed only one run and become the team’s first pitcher to throw a complete game in April since Mark Prior in 2003.
Firing off 97 mph fastballs, Samardzija was great as a starter on Sunday afternoon. But after observing the Cubs’ opening weekend – and, in particular, the late-game implosions by relievers Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol – I can’t help but wonder if the Cubs’ No. 3 starter isn’t more valuable in the bullpen.
‘‘I think our bullpen is fine, no worries about it,’’ Samardzija said after Sunday’s game, which Marmol did ultimately save (albeit after walking Jayson Werth). ‘‘I pitched in the bullpen, too, and walked four guys in Milwaukee the start of last year. I didn’t know where the plate was.’’
After a 2010 campaign during which he logged an ugly 8.38 ERA, Samardzija finally came into his own as a reliever last season. His 8-4 record and a 2.97 ERA out of the pen made him one of the few bright spots during the Cubs’ dismal 2011.
Now, considering the franchise’s hefty investment in him, it’s no surprise that the Cubs want to get starter returns out Samardzija this year. And if Sunday’s performance is any indication, it appears those returns could be quite good.
But with Sean Marshall shipped off to Cincy (a trade I still don’t really understand), Wood starting to looking petrified (he turns 35 in June) and Marmol resembling only a shell of his dominant 2010 self (what’s happened to that nasty slider?), the Cubs bullpen is a major concern in 2012.
In blowing each of the team’s first two games vs. the Nats, Wood and Marmol compiled twin ERAs of 27.00. Not exactly the way you want to start the season.
And certainly not the way to finish any games.
Down in the minors, the Cubs do have a capable big league starter available in Randy Wells – who allowed three runs in six innings to earn the win in Triple-A Iowa’s opener last Thursday. There are options for re-stocking the rotation if a starter was to become a reliever. If Wood and Marmol are unable to straighten themselves out, however, the Cubs have few immediate solutions already in the pen.
Samardzija made it clear on Sunday that he wants to be a starter, not a reliever saying, “I feel I’ve got a chip on my shoulder because I’ve talked a big game that I wanted to start, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot.”
However, if the Cubs can’t get this bullpen things sorted out soon enough, they’ll be the ones that end up looking that way.
Only three games have transpired this year, so it’s far too soon for the Dale Sveum and the Cubs to make any drastic moves just yet.
But even though it’s early, the Cubs are already in trouble late. And it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about potential solutions.
Even ones that might start … and stop.