Too Early To Know If Shark Will Sink Or Swim
CHICAGO—Sometimes, it's easy to look at a player and discern what he'll become.
Take Reds outfield prospect Jay Bruce, for example. Great tools, great performance . . . it's pretty clear he'll be a star in the big leagues.
This works at the other end of the spectrum as well. We won't single anyone out, but every farm system is filled with organizational players not nearly as physically gifted nor performing nearly as well as Bruce . . . it's pretty clear they won't ever see the majors.
Then there are players for whom the tools paint one picture and the numbers paint another. Rowdy Hardy leads the high Class A Carolina League with 13 wins and ranks second with a 2.28 ERA. Sounds pretty interesting, plus he's a lefthander . . . but he barely cracks 80 mph with his fastball.
At the other end of that spectrum lies Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs drafted him in the fifth round last June, gave him $10 million to lure him away from the NFL . . . and his statistics can't touch Hardy's.Do The Numbers Lie?
Samardzija has the velocity and life on his fastball to blow hitters away. He touched 99 mph at Notre Dame, comfortably works in the low to mid-90s and gets tremendous sink.
"Not very many pitchers have natural sink that's hard and late with that velocity," says Rich Bombard, his pitching coach at high Class A Daytona. "You can't teach that. That's what separates him. There are other guys in this league who can throw 93-95 mph, but not with that movement."
Add in a 6-foot-5 frame, and he should be plenty intimidating. But Florida State League hitters have been more than comfortable against "The Shark." They've batted .323 against him, with nearly as many walks (35) as strikeouts (45). Samardzija was 3-8, 4.95, averaging just 3.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He has yet to post more whiffs than hits allowed in any of his 20 starts. When he was sent to the bullpen in early June to work on his delivery, he fanned just two of the 28 batters he faced.
Samardzija never has piled up strikeouts, with just 17 in 30 innings during his 2006 pro debut and 159 in 240 innings over three years against mid-major college competition. Why can't he miss bats? The primary diagnosis is that he's still learning how to pitch. Because he juggled two sports at Notre Dame, where he broke every notable receiving record for the football team, he never refined his mechanics or his secondary pitches. Hitters can sit on his sinker until he makes them respect his slider and changeup.Or Do The Projections?
While his numbers aren't encouraging, the Cubs say his progress has been. Since returning to the Daytona rotation in mid-June, he has shaved half a run off his ERA and been more consistent with his release point.
Bombard says Samardzija's focus at this point is staying more closed with his delivery. When he opens up too soon, he drops his arm slot, costing him velocity and sink on his fastball and break on his slider. In time, the Cubs believe he can turn his slider into a strikeout pitch and develop a good changeup.
Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken says that while they aren't directly comparable, Samardzija's situation reminds him of what Roy Halladay went through early in his career. Halladay posted a 10.64 ERA in Toronto at age 23, forcing a demotion all the way to the FSL before he found a release point that worked for him.
Ask scouts from other clubs about Samardzija, and they all mention the same three things. They love his arm and makeup; they wouldn't have paid him $10 million; and it's hard to argue with Wilken's distinguished track record.
"He's a power sinker guy who will learn to strike out guys as he moves up," says one scout, who saw Samardzija early this season. "He has no idea what he's doing. When he gets the feel, his strikeout numbers will rise.
"He knows how to sniff for the end zone, but he doesn't know how to sniff for the strikeout yet. He will. What he is now is not anywhere near what he will be. I think he'll be a star as either a starter or closer."
The Cubs overpaid for Samardzija, who would have commanded roughly half his $10 million baseball guarantee as a second- or third-round NFL draft choice. But it's still too early to know how much that investment will pay off.
You can look at Samardzija and see what you want to see. The numbers can make you believe that he won't dominate hitters, and his arm and relative inexperience can make you believe that he will.