Cubs Give Szczur 1.5 Million Reasons To Play Baseball





CHICAGO—Like Jeff Samardzija before him, former Villanova wide receiver and running back Matt Szczur is bypassing the NFL draft to pursue a career with the Cubs.

Forgive the Cubs if they hope the comparisons end there.

Samardzija has struggled to justify the $10 million he got in January 2007, when many viewed him as a premium NFL pick based on his work as a wideout for Notre Dame. Szczur (pronounced like Caeser) didn't generate nearly as much of a splash when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, but he played so well in his first half season as a pro that the Cubs would have hated having to share him with an NFL team.

"We've had the great fortune to get to know Matt the last seven-plus months and are excited by his decision to devote himself completely to baseball and the Cubs," general manager Jim Hendry said after Szczur took a $1.5 million bonus to play baseball shortly after scoring five touchdowns in a playoff game for Villanova. "We've come to know Matt not only as a talented athlete but also as an exceptional person."

Szczur, a 6-foot-1, 190 pound center fielder, appears as much of a natural at baseball as football. He played in 25 games at three levels last season, using a 21-game hitting streak to fuel a .347 average and .414 on-base percentage.

His decision to forgo the NFL draft came after Hendry had dinner with him in Janaury. Szczur said Hendry told him that he envisions that Cubs having an all-homegrown outfield of Brett Jackson, Tyler Colvin and Szczur within a few years.

In addition to his potential as a hitter and basestealer, Szczur also earns high marks for his makeup. He missed three weeks of Villanova's 2010 season after donating peripheral blood cells to a 1-year-old girl fighting leukemia, and then hit a home run in his first at-bat back. He's already become something of a cult hero in the organization before his first spring training.

"The whole organization really believes in me," Szczur said.

Samardzija had that belief in the spring of 2007. He threw high-90s fastballs past Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee as Lou Piniella looked on, excited about the potential of the ultra-confident pitcher with the floppy hair. But Samardzija has failed to establish himself in the big leagues, and has only one year remaining on his five-year deal.

Samardzija has a 5.95 ERA in 53 big-league appearances, including just five starts. He was 7-2, 4.33 in 15 starts for Triple-A Iowa last season and is headed toward spring training with the idea of competing for a spot in a starting rotation that has at least seven pitchers ahead of him, including fellow prospects Casey Coleman and Andrew Cashner.

It might be now or never for him. Szczur, on the other hand, is just starting on his journey, full of promise but knowing nothing is guaranteed.

Cubbyhole

• Tony Campana, a 5-foot-8 outfielder who hit .319 and stole 48 bases for Double-A Tennessee last year, added to his resume by hitting .280 in a 22-game stint for Zulia in the Venezuelan League.

• The Cubs are assembling outfield depth. While they traded Brandon Guyer in the Matt Garza deal with the Rays, they landed three prospects from the Nationals in a trade for Tom Gorzelanny, the best of whom appears to be Double-A outfielder Michael Burgess. The 49th overall pick in 2007, he hit .265/.357/.465 with 18 homers between high Class A and Double-A last season.