Daily Dish: June 20

See also: Monday's Daily Dish
See also: Today's Baseball America Prospect Report

While the Devil Rays organization has endured one headache after another at Triple-A Durham, the club received some good news Monday night, as righthander Jeff Niemann took the mound for the first time since last August.

The 6-foot-9, 260-pound righthander allowed an earned run on four hits while striking out eight over 4 1/3 innings of work. While he pitched well, he still took the loss in Double-A Jacksonville's 1-0 win against Montgomery.

Niemann, the Rays' first-round pick (fourth overall) in 2004, has been severely limited by injuries in his brief pro career. A sore shoulder and groin problems shut him down last season, when he finished his first season 0-2, 4.11 in just 31 innings.

Niemann threw 67 pitches Monday, and his fastball was clocked consistently in the 90-91 mph range, touching 93.

"He was in control of the game and the best thing was he was fine after it," Montgomery manager Charlie Montoyo told the Montgomery Advertiser.

Niemann spent the first two and a half months of the year at the club's extended spring training facility in St. Petersburg, rehabbing from minor surgery he had to shave the joint down between his collarbone and shoulder last October.

"He was outstanding. It was good to see him back," Montoyo told the paper. "He looked like a first-rounder."


Crazy Determination

So determined was Jeff Samardzija not to miss any games with the Boise Hawks that the righthander drove straight from Chicago to Boise this weekend.

Even though his contract wasn't finished and even though Samardzija isn't likely to pitch in a game for at least a week.

The Notre Dame receiving star--and Chicago Cubs' fifth-round draft pick--is equally determined to give baseball a real shot. At least until he has to return to South Bend for football practice the first week of August.

"I didn't want to miss any games," Samardzija said before the Hawks' season opener Monday night in Boise. "I'm not going to be here for that long, so I don't want to miss any. I want to be here for all of them. I made a point to drive out here, even if things weren't ready to go yet. Maybe, hopefully, it will speed things up a little bit."

Samardzija has agreed to a reported five-year, $7.25 million contract with the Cubs. But he won't collect all that money unless he makes baseball his full-time job after the Notre Dame football season. Major League Baseball must still approve the contract.

The 6-foot-6 Samardzija, who set Notre Dame records in receiving yards and touchdowns last fall, is considered a first-round NFL draft pick in next spring's draft, though his status could change as underclassmen enter the '07 NFL draft class.

But the Cubs, who didn't have a second-, third- or fourth-round pick in this month's draft, believe Samardzija could be a baseball standout--if he devoted his time to the sport.

Samardzija's fastball has topped out at 99 mph and his slider is improving. He still must develop a reliable off-speed pitch.

"I don't know if he was a high risk. This is a guy that was throwing 98, up to 99 mph, the last game he pitched in the regionals," Cubs' farm director Oneri Fleita said. "You're talking about a guy that has got a lot of ability and really hasn't focused totally on baseball."

Samardzija isn't ready to do that just yet. He will return to Notre Dame for his senior football season before the end of the Hawks' season, meaning he has about six weeks--and six or seven starts--with Boise. Samardzija is just trying to have fun and take advantage of the opportunity. Irish football coach Charlie Weis blessed the move.

"Going into this whole thing I kind of wanted to go into both sports with open eyes and do the best I could in both of them and see where it goes," he said. "We're kind of in the middle of that right now."

It's been a long road. Samardzija began playing organized baseball and football at age 7, and hasn't stopped since. In three seasons with the Irish baseball teams, Samardzija went 21-6, including 8-2 this season.

Samardzija doesn't want to have choose now, either. He believes it's possible for him to play both sports professionally.

"It's as realistic as I try to make it," Samardzija said.
Obviously, it's not all in my hands, but as long as I get around the right people and take care of business--which is probably the biggest part--then hopefully things can work out."

The Cubs did not pressure Samardzija to give up football--yet. And that made a big difference to the potential Heisman Trophy candidate whose team could win the national championship.

"There are obviously teams out there that wouldn't have been supportive of it. That means a lot to me," he said. "Down the road, when I might have to weigh my options and what I want to do, it means a lot and definitely goes a long way."

The Cubs are hoping they can eventually convince Samardzija to ditch football in favor of baseball. The club, which drew the ire of MLB for their largesse in the signing bonus department, was not scared off by his football commitments.

"Anytime we get a chance to add some athletes like Jeff to the inventory, we're certainly going to do that," Fleita said.

The Hawks will likely use Samardzija as a starting pitcher, but because the team plans on using a piggyback system with its starters, Samardzija could end up pitching in relief at times.

The current plan is for Samardzija to throw some batting practice and perhaps work in a simulated game while his contract is worked out. Once Samardzija works his arm back into game shape, the Hawks' coaching staff, the Cubs' minor league staff and Samardzija will discuss his exact role.

The Cubs hope his six-week taste of professional baseball is enough--along with the money--to whet his appetite for more work on the diamond.

"He's probably trying to learn a little bit about us and learn a little bit about professional baseball. And we're going to try to learn about him. Hopefully in the end, it's a great relationship," Fleita said. "That's how you can look at it--it'll be six weeks of trying to establish a relationship.

"It's not ordinary that a guy gets to choose, but has that opportunity and God blessed him with those abilities. Hopefully, in the end, he'll become a Cub."

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)


• The short-season and Rookie-level clubs start getting it rolling this week, with the short-season Northwest League kicking things off Monday. Tonight, the short-season New York-Penn League and Rookie-level Pioneer and Gulf Coast Leagues begin. The Rookie-level Appalachian League starts Wednesday, with the Rookie-level Arizona League getting underway on Thursday . . . Short-season Mahoning Valley will go the prospect route from the start, as righthander Nick Pesco will start tonight and righthander J.D. Martin will follow in the rotation Wednesday. Pesco, who went 3-2, 4.03 in 38 innings at Double-A Akron, was shut down in late May with shoulder inflammation. Martin is coming back from Tommy John surgery last year . . . The Braves made a few roster moves Monday, reassigning righthander Anthony Lerew to Double-A Mississippi, and promoting outfielders Gregor Blanco (to Triple-A Richmond) and Brandon Jones (to Mississippi). Lerew has battled command issues all season at Richmond, where he went 1-4, 9.38 with a 39-29 strikeout-walk ratio. In 48 innings, Lerew allowed 50 earned runs on 70 hits. Blanco, who has gone through a renaissance at the plate this season--particularly with his plate discipline--was hitting .287/.397/.375 in 251 at-bats in Double-A. The 22-year-old outfielder compiled a 57-43 strikeout-walk ratio for the M-Braves. Jones, a 24th-rounder in 2002 who signed as a draft-and-follow, was hitting .257/.329/.420 at high Class A Myrtle Beach . . . In his first baseball since the 50-game suspension, Triple-A Durham outfielder Delmon Young collected two hits, spread across two games. The Bulls opened the night completing a game from April 22; and Young singled in his first at-bat. Then, in the regularly scheduled game against Charlotte, Young went 1-for-4, hitting another single in his second at-bat of the game . . . In an April test of Triple-A, Rochester outfielder Alex Romero failed, hitting just 5-for-26 in eight games before being sent to Double-A. However, the Twins have decided to give Romero a second crack at Rochester after hitting .281/.384/.461 in 48 games at New Britain. While Romero collected his first multi-hit game at Triple-A on Monday, a costly baserunning error emphasized his youth. "Romero has made some mistakes in the three games," Rochester manager Stan Cliburn told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of the outfielder's second trial, "and I'm concerned." . . . Don't look now, but former Blue Jays top prospect Brandon League is heating up in Triple-A Syracuse's closer role. League has three saves in the month of June, during which he has not allowed a run in seven innings. While his 10 strikeouts over that time are impressive, League's success could be attributed to his ability to keep the ball on the ground. For the season, the righthander has a 81-13 groundball-flyball ratio . . . Yakima (Diamondbacks) outfielder Travis Tully, the first batter of the game, was hit in the head by a pitch from Vancouver (Athletics) lefthander James Heuser. Vancouver would go on to win 3-2 on the Northwest League’s Opening Day . . . Making a rehab start for Salem-Keizer, Giants righthander Craig Whitaker tossed four innings against Spokane (Rangers), allowing two hits, two runs and striking out three. Whitaker, the Giants' first-round pick in 2003, opened the year high Class A San Jose, but an oblique strain in his debut has kept him out of action since April. "It was fun to get back out there," Whitaker told the Salem Statesman-Journal . . . Padres first-rounder Matt Antonelli debuted for Eugene by going 0-for-3. Cubs lefthander Mark Pawelek and Rockies righthander Shane Lindsay also made their '06 debuts in the Northwest League. Lindsay, signed out of Australia in 2003, went five innings and allowed three runs Monday after dominating the NWL last season. Lindsay was back at Tri-City on injury rehab because he was diagnosed with a tear in his labrum after last season.

Contributing: Matt Eddy, Kristin Pratt, Bryan Smith.