Huge Incentive To Play Baseball

If Jeff Samardzija’s career works out the way he and the Cubs hope, he will end up receiving one of the largest signing bonuses ever given to an amateur  player.

Samardzija, a fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame, has finalized a deal with the Cubs on a contract that will allow the righthander to continue his all-America football career with the Fighting Irish this fall while pursuing professional baseball.

While Samardzija was ready to hit the road–he drove Boise to join the Cubs affiliate there in the short-season Northwest League–he has committed to return to South Bend for the start of football practice on Aug. 1.

“My original plans are to go out and play ball in the summer and then come back in time to get ready for summer football camp,” Samardzija said in a press conference right after the draft. “I plan on being back probably by (Aug. 1) for a couple of reasons. One, it’s about a week before football starts and–I’ll be conditioning all summer–but to fine-tune and be ready for the season. Beyond that, there might be a class I want to take.”

Samardzija would receive $7.25 million if he makes baseball his primary sport. The Cubs have five years to pay Samardzija’s bonus under baseball’s rules regarding two-sport players. The deal is backloaded, with Samardzija receiving less than $1 million in the first year of the deal, according to sources with knowledge of the contract.

The record for a signing bonus for a player that signed with the club that drafted him is $6.1 million, set in January by the Diamondbacks and 2005 No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton. The largest bonus ever given to a drafted player remains $10.2 million, which the Devil Rays gave to righthander Matt White after he exploited a draft loophole to become a free agent in 1996.

One source indicated the size of the bonus–clearly above the slot recommended by Major League Baseball–created friction between the Cubs and MLB, with commissioner Bud Selig becoming personally involved in the negotiations.

In an interview right after the draft, Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken indicated the Cubs and Orioles both saw Samardzija at his best in an outing during the Big East Conference tournament. Wilken said Samardzija repeatedly pumped his fastball into the 97-99 mph range, up significantly from the regular season, when he sat in the 91-94 mph range. Samardzija showed a much better slider in that outing, using a higher arm slot to stay on top of the pitch better.

The inconsistent quality of his breaking ball was one question that prompted Samardzija, a consensus first-round talent, to fall into the fifth round. He had success for the Irish, going 21-6, 3.82 in three seasons (including 8-2, 4.33 this spring), but his strikeout rate was low for a pitcher with power stuff. He had 61 strikeouts in 98 innings in 2006 and 159 strikeouts (and 84 walks) in 240 career innings.

His football commitment was the bigger factor, of course, as clubs realized Samardzija was a potential first-round NFL talent as a deceptively quick, athletic wide receiver.

Samardzija threw 45 pitches in a Wrigley Field bullpen session on Friday and continued to stick to his plan: He will do his best to play both sports at as high a level as possible, until he realizes which sport is the best fit for him professionally. He had a breakout football season last fall, catching 15 touchdown passes among his 77 receptions for 1,249 yards.

“Anyone who thinks I’m not serious about baseball, just come out and watch me play,” Samardzija said. “Anyone that has come and see me practice and pitch in a game and see how I approach the game would completely prove all that wrong.

“With the situation I have in football, if I didn’t love baseball, I would have stopped playing a long time ago. It’s not really a question of whether I’m going to play. I love baseball and am going to be playing as long as a I can. My favorite (sport) is whatever season it is.”

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