I paid so little attention to Cubs baseball after the first few weeks that it's hard for me to believe that Jeff Samardzija threw 88 innings a year ago. I did know that however many innings he threw that they weren't the typically bad Jeff Samardzija innings. I also knew he got lucky. I probably paid no attention to Samardzija's 88 innings because he's a middle reliever on his best day. And last year was his best day.
Samardzja did strikeout 8.9 per 9 and allowed just 6.5 hits per 9 so you're asking, what's the problem? Well, he walked 5.1 per 9 and it's not like this was unusual. His career BB/9 rate is 5.3. Samardzija's BABIP was under .260 and based on what we know of balls in play, there's every reason to believe that will increase and probably considerably. Including last year, his career BABIP is .279. Only 5.3% of the fly balls he allowed ended up being home runs. That too will increase significantly. HIs sparkling 2.97 ERA looks considerably worse than his FIP (3.66), which looks quite a bit worse than his xFIP (4.27). The latter two are far more predictive of next season's rates than ERA is.
His average projected ERA next year is about 4.3 with an FIP of 4.36. As a reliever, that's worse than replacement level. If he were to start you can add another run to that projection. We're looking at a projected ERA as a starter of 5.3 with an FIP of nearly 5.4. He's a replacement level pitcher. His increase in strikeout rate was an encouraging sign, but his walk rate remained terrible. His HR/FB and BABIP are due for regression.
Samardzija may begin the year in the rotation. If several other options end up injured, it's entirely possible he would beat out someone you haven't yet heard of for a chance to start. Pitchers get injured and although 4 or 5 starters going down in spring training would be unlikely, it could happen. That's how Samardzija ends up in the rotation.
That's the only way. Think about how many spring trainings you've been following this team. Now think about how many imaginary position battles the organization has come up with to try and create some competition in what is mostly a boring time for these athletes. There's a reason the Cubs are holding a contest to see who can hit the ball the shortest distance right now. It's called competition. These guys are insanely competitive. If you let them coast through spring training they're not going to push themselves. If you create a competition, it will lead to other competitions. Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster may decide to place a bet on who throws more innings so each pitcher works on becoming more durable throughout the season. Competition is good. But it doesn't mean all competitions are created equally.
Samardzija is currently so far down the depth chart it's difficult imagining a situation in which he would be given the ball at the start of a game. Regardless of how well he does in spring trailing that is true. Sveum and others can talk the possibility up all they want, but the reality is that Jeff Samardzija is barely good eough to make an MLB bullpen. The Cubs rotation will be unbelievably awful if we're talking about Samardzija getting the ball every 5th game.
Take the idea of this competition for what it's worth. Let's put it this way: Darwin Barney has a significantly greater chance of being the opening day shortstop than Samardzija has of being in the rotation. All that would have to happen for Barney to slide over is for Starlin Castro to get injured. I actually think Samardzija starting has as much chance of happening as Soriano being the opening day CF. If Marlon Byrd, Brett Jackson, David DeJesus, Dave Sappelt and Tony Campana all go down with injury then Soriano just might shift to CF.
If Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad go down with injury we could see a rotation Samardzija get a shot. The rotation may look something like Travis Wood, Rodrigo Lopez, Casey Coleman, Trey McNutt and Jeff Samardzija. I guess that's possible. Samardzija just might be good enough to be the team's number 5 starter if the current 5 starters all get hurt. You never know. Then again, that would probably depend on how well Andy Sonnanstine is pitching.