Wisch: A Great Start, But Do Cubs Need Samardzija In The Pen?

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.

  • Michael Canter

    Youve got to be kidding me right? If a guy can get 25 outs in a game why waste him on 6-10 batters per week? Did you see his DOM rate for the game? Zero walks. Put Wells in the pen or bring up one of the thousands of arms you’ve stockpiled. Taking an efficient, dominating starter and putting him in the pen doesn’t make Carlos Marmol any better.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      I didn’t say that it does make Marmol better, Michael. And I’m not saying that the Cubs should move Samardzija — certainly not at this point in the season — but the team does have more organizational depth at starter than it does at reliever. That’s just a fact. And if the Cubs can’t finish out any games because its bullpen is so porous, it won’t matter all that much how well the starters do.

      Also, those 25 outs in one game that you mentioned are just that, one game. Those 6-10 batters per week, however, could potentially contribute to three or four victories, so I’m not really tracking your logic on that.

      Really, with Samardzija — at least the way it appears right now (and, again, we’re three games into the season) — it most likely will come down to what Theo & Co. decide this season is all about. Are they willing to truly just throw in the towel on 2012 if Marmol and Wood fail and build for the future with Samardzija as a starter? Or here in this new age of two Wild Card spots are the Cubs still trying to compete as best as they can this season?

      It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. And what kinds of solutions the team comes up with if the pen continues to struggle. Wells, by the way, wouldn’t be nearly as effective as a late-inning guy in the pen as Samardzija. Randy doesn’t throw 97 mph.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    The 97mph makes the move to the pen attractive…such as how the Nationals (who just left town) built their pen first and then added starters such as Strassburg.

    But I vote for leave well-enough alone…for now.
    My worry about the Shark is that he is a 5+ inning guy as a starter (yesterday as a happy exception). If he consistently throws short-starts, he’s then more valuable in the pen.

  • Jake from da burbs

    I think you leave Sama in the starting rotation and dont even think about moving to the pen. This year is about development on the future, not patch jobbing it for this year. If Sama can prove he is a legit #2 or #3 starter by the end of this year, then the Cubs future looks a little brighter. Thats one less guy you have to worry about.

    Bullpens are fickle. One minute a reliever is great and another the reliever sucks. If you want to fix the bullpen, fix Marmol. Kerry Wood will come around.. he didn’t have much of a spring training. I think you’re going to have to have someone step up in the bullpen. Camp and Dolis look like good arms that can help.

    Again, the key this year is establishing guys in roles that they can prosper for the future. That means, I want to know if Sama, Volstad and Wood are long-term rotation guys. I want to know that Barney and Stewart are full time, long-term options for 2nd and 3rd going forward. I want to know if LaHair is a major leaguer or not. So, you let these guys play in their positions and give them full-time jobs and dont touch them till the end of the year.

    If at the end of 2012 season, you know what you have in Barney, Stewart, Jackson, Rizzo, Sama, Volstad and Travis Wood, then you’ve gone a long way to getting better for the 2014 season which is probably the season to target sustained success and playoff baseball.

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