The Cubs had an interesting draft in 2006. They had the 13th overall pick in the draft (they used it on Tyler Colvin, now with the Rockies). Then, they didn't pick again until the 149th overall pick. They used it on a player who many thought would not even sign; Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija has had a very interesting sporting career. Recruited out of Valparaiso HS (I can attest to how ridiculous a receiver he was in high school – I attended Crown Point) to play wide receiver, the Irish WR did double duty, converting to a pitcher in college as well as setting many records at Notre Dame. He was a late 1st/early 2nd round football talent, but also had some skill on the mound; though raw, 98 mph heat on a fresh arm is mighty, mighty tempting. The Cubs didn't have any impact players in this draft class and felt they needed to take a gamble, and so they did.
Samardzija was a tough, expensive sign. He made 3 million in 2010 and 3.3 million in 2011. The Cubs commitment to him was expected to pay early dividends… and for a while, it did.
Curiously, he did not do very well in the minors. He never overpowered anyone, putting up very pedestrian peripherals like 5.1 and 4.1 K/9 rates. He was hittable as well, and his minors numbers who give you the impression of a bust. However, it was evident that he had a plus-fastball, if little else. The Cubs would call him up in 2008 after only 230 minor league innings.
The first year, it worked out. Working exclusively from the pen, he dominated his first season. I remember watching him throw 100 mph gas and just being blown away by his raw talent. He walked his fair share (4.9/9), but struck out enough (8.1) and always seemed to work out of jams.
Then, it kind of fell apart. He was sent back down in 09, and didn't impress for a few years. More than a few people thought he would just never throw enough strikes to be a legitimate pitcher. 09 and 10 were basically lost years for Samardzija.
Then, 2011 happened. Thrust back into a bullpen role, Samardzija blossomed into an very dominant reliever. After developing a splitter that would be come a signature strikeout pitch, Jeff was able to strikeout 8.9 per 9 innings and keep his hits down to 6.5 per. He still had a high walk rate, but I and many others were very confident he could be a dominant setup man or closer well into the future.
2012 came with an opportunity to grab a rotation spot for Jeff. A starter by trade, Samardzija asked to be given consideration for a starter's role and he earned one. The only way he'd keep the spot, however, is if he could keep his walks down- something he did very well last year. Samardzija goes into the 2013 season as our de facto ace, a player who is still cost-controlled for 3 years and hopefully a dominant top to the rotation.
Samardzija features a 95mph fastball, an 85mph slider, and an 86 mph splitter. He mixes in the occasional cutter and curveball, but for the most part he's a pure flamethrower. His splitter is one of the best single pitches in baseball, and the slider is a legit plus pitch as well. The fastball is playable, but average.
Samardzija induces many swings and misses. His swinging-strike % is 12.1 (league average is 9.1), and the majority of that is inducing swings out of the strike zone (and a much lower percentage of those swings connect against Jeff than average). This is a great sign that he his just dominating guys. He throws slightly less in the zone than the average pitcher, but not enough to be concerning.
Samardzija's 2013 season will be extremely important in determing whether or not 2012 is the new normal, or if he'll go back to walking guys. If he keeps up his the 2012 performance or even improves (Samardzija biggest problem last year was keeping the ball down- if he leaves it up in the zone it's a 450 foot bomb), then he's in-line for a huge extension from the Cubs. If he can't keep the walks down, he'll more likely fit as a closer or 8th inning guy. All in all, Samardzija is a revelation, and I wouldn't have said that just 3 years ago.