Opening Day

Samardzija a Cubs leader? Job’s open, and he’s willing

2013-03-31T20:00:00Z 2013-04-01T12:48:03Z Samardzija a Cubs leader? Job’s open, and he’s willingBY GEORGE CASTLE Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
March 31, 2013 8:00 pm  • 

With the Theo Epstein-mandated rebuilding process’ end not yet in sight, the Cubs don’t yet have a true rotation ace and a certified team leader.

The jobs are wide open. After a breakout season in 2012, Valparaiso’s Jeff Samardzija is as good as anyone to serve as No. 1 pitcher and clubhouse focal point.

Right-hander Samardzija, the Opening Day starter in Pittsburgh on Monday, is up for the gigs.

“Absolutely,” he said in a recent interview. “The reason why I’ve had any success and I’m doing what I’m doing at all is because of guys like (Ryan) Dempster and (Ted) Lilly, who were here with me.

“I followed them around and did what they did. They certainly made me a better player and a better professional. You owe that to the younger guys to be a good role model and a good example of how to go about your business as a professional.

“Ultimately, it comes down to doing it on the field. You have to show the guys how to work on the field, and how to prepare to play ball on the field.”

The concept of the 28-year-old Samardzija as team leader grew even more with continuing injury problems for veteran Matt Garza and Scott Baker. That thins the rotation in which Samardzija could be the standout among newcomers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva, and holdover lefty Travis Wood.

Samardzija was mentioned by teammates as a near-future leader and staff ace last season. De La Salle Institute alum Brian Bogusevic, a hot hitter in camp and Samardzija teammate before being demoted, seconded those notions.

“He’s established himself with the team,” Bogusevic said. “He’s competitive as hell. He’s got the work ethic to show everybody how to go about their business. He’s right on track to be that (leader).”

A Samardzija-led rotation will have to lead any Cubs improvement from 101 losses.

Epstein is not blocking up the under-powered lineup with high-priced free agents. Career fourth outfielder-type Nate Schierholtz is holding down right field and utilityman Luis Valbuena is playing third.

At 37, left fielder Alfonso Soriano is questionable to repeat his 32-homer, 108-RBI season. First baseman Anthony Rizzo will need to make adjustments to avoid the “sophomore jinx” after his fine 15-homer break-in over 2/3 of last season.

Ultimately, Schierholtz and his six homers last season could yield to a better bet for power in right. Naperville native Scott Hairston had 20 homers in 2012 for the New York Mets. He is the fifth member of his family to play for a Chicago team over three generations.

“I never consider myself a platoon player,” Hairston said. “Others have. I always felt like an everyday player. Given an opportunity, I can prove to people I can be. In the past, I feel I proved myself, but my opinion doesn’t matter.”

The Cubs’ bullpen could be in flux if Epstein finds a taker for closer Carlos Marmol. The slider specialist was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Angels in the off-season. Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa is waiting in the wings to take over for Marmol.

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