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Insider

Jeff Samardzija a good rotation gamble

3/29/2012

The word out of Mesa is that Jeff Samardzija has won a spot in the Cubs' rotation, beating out Randy Wells and Travis Wood, who were both demoted to Triple-A Iowa.

Samardzija, who began his pro career as a starter in the minors before being moved to the bullpen, threw six scoreless innings on Wednesday against the Cleveland Indians. While it wasn't a great outing, it was certainly the best combination of stuff and feel that I've seen from Samardzija, who up until this spring looked like nothing more than bullpen cannon fodder. I'm far from sold on him as some kind of beast in the rotation, but at least now there's something there that wasn't there before.

Samardzija was 91-94 in the first inning but dialed it up in the second and sat mostly 94-96 the rest of the way, hitting 97-98 a few times, but lacking consistency with his location; he needs to drive that ball down in the zone, taking advantage of his 6-foot-5 frame, but he left a lot of fastballs up in the zone and didn't seem to find that location, especially the corner low and away from right-handers, until the very end of his outing. His slider was average, breaking in toward left-handers' bats too much, but you could see a weapon in there against right-handed hitters if he can hit that same down-and-away area of the zone. He did throw a handful of changeups to lefties and it's clearly the better pitch for him against those hitters, with good arm speed and separation from the fastball (averaging around 86), good enough that I wasn't sure why he kept going to the slider. His arm works fine, although he wasn't landing online to the plate and often bounced a little off his front foot when he came down.

Samardzija has been penciled into the rotation, at least to start the season, although I assume the Cubs will have to throttle his innings in the second half since he's averaged just 114 innings a year in swing or relief roles over the last three seasons. And it makes sense for the Cubs to see if they have a starter here -- they lack rotation depth and had the flexibility to send Wells and Wood to Triple-A while they see what Samardzija can provide them. That said, I can't go all in on Samardzija as a starter based on this look -- there's potential there, with a plus fastball and two secondary pitches you could project as above-average, but the command and feel, while far above where they were last year when he walked 5.1 men per nine innings, still aren't at major league starter level. It's found money for the Cubs' front office, though, and well worth the flier given the lack of pitching depth in the upper levels of their farm system.