Commentary

Finding relief

Samardzija, Santos take different paths to arrive at similar points in careers

Updated: March 30, 2010, 6:22 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One was a wide receiver, the "Big Man on Campus." The other was a minor league infielder and erstwhile break-dancer.

[+] EnlargeSantos
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesSergio Santos thanks White Sox director of minor league operations Buddy Bell for first suggesting he become a pitcher.

Both came to spring training trying to win jobs.

One easily made his team but didn't get the job he wanted. The other was sweating to make the big league roster, just hoping for a perfect end to an unlikely story.

Jeff Samardzija and Sergio Santos don't have much in common, but they are two distinct spring stories for the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox, two worth following this season if all things go right for them.

Things fell right for Santos on Tuesday as he was named to the 25-man roster.

I'm not one for mythologizing spring training. It's not a metaphor for rebirth or some pastoral hokum. It's essentially just practice in a desert. For Santos, it seems like a little practice is helping him realize a long-held dream. For Samardzija, he already has his security; now he's trying to get stardom back.

And while these guys are so different, maybe they're both finally in the right place at the right time.

Samardzija tried in vain to convince Cubs manager Lou Piniella he should be in the starting rotation, as the Cubs had two holes going into the season with Ted Lilly rehabbing his shoulder. The alternative was the bullpen, where he would work as a setup man.

"I wasn't trying to convince him any one way," Samardzija said Monday in Mesa. "We were just talking. We wanted to get on the same page with what the plan was. It was a great talk. I talked to [pitching coach] Larry [Rothschild], too. It's how things work."

"He thought he had pitched well enough here in spring training to stay in the rotation," Piniella told reporters at camp. "I agreed with him, but we only have two spots."

Those aren't exactly stirring words. Piniella said he pitched well enough to start, just not for the Cubs. Certainly, he was disappointed, right?

"Disappointed is probably the wrong word," Samardzija said. "Obviously you have your goals, stuff you want to work to in the offseason to get ready for the season. Different things happen. There are different needs on the team. My arm feels great. I'm ready for any role."

While most pitchers of his experience are just trying to win any job, expectations are skewed for the 25-year-old Samardzija. He is finally getting comfortable as a full-time baseball player. The Cubs awarded him -- it almost was a gift, really -- $10 million to sign out of Notre Dame and give up a potential NFL career.

Last year, after starting in the minors, he pitched 20 games for the Cubs, giving up 46 hits and walking 15 in 34 2/3 innings. His 7.53 ERA didn't exactly portend a starting role in 2010. All six runs he's given up in 10 innings this spring came in consecutive outings. With little margin for error, he didn't show enough to beat out Tom Gorzelanny or force the Cubs to push Carlos Silva into a bullpen job he likely couldn't hack. In truth, Samardzija will help the Cubs more as a reliever with his fastball and split-finger combination.

"He's been doing a pretty good job working on his off-speed pitches," catcher Geovany Soto said. "I think he's come a long way."

Some wonder whether the Cubs rushed Samardzija to the big leagues in 2009. He came up in late April and went down in early May for nearly two months, bouncing back and forth between starting in the minors and relieving in the majors. He lost both of his starts with the Cubs.

"I wasn't rushed, not at all," he said. "Obviously, there is a need to throw innings and grow a little bit. But I'm the kind of guy that wouldn't mind doing that here.

"You take your lumps and you learn from them. I felt like last year was a big year for that for me. It was a big learning year. And I'm trying to roll it over to this year."

Santos, pitching out of obscurity, was a higher draft pick than Samardzija, a first-round choice in 2002 out of Mater Dei High School, the prep powerhouse in Orange County, Calif. A former break-dancer -- he was outed by Mark Teahen via Twitter this spring -- Santos worked his way up to Triple-A as a shortstop in 2005, but he was traded to Toronto after the season and then claimed off waivers by Minnesota in 2008. He then signed a minor league contract with the White Sox, was traded to San Francisco and wound up back on the Sox after only 10 days. He hit .248 with a .305 on-base percentage in seven seasons.

It's a familiar story in these circles. A guy comes into baseball, gets close enough to have a life of stories and regrets. It happens every day. But what happened next is pretty extraordinary.

When he returned to the Sox, it was with the caveat that he learn to pitch.

Buddy Bell, the Sox's director of minor league operations, had asked Santos if he wanted to try pitching, but he still held out hope to make the majors as a position player. So they traded him to San Francisco. A week and a half was all he needed to change his mind.

"He came up to me and said, 'Have you ever thought about pitching?'" Santos recalled in the clubhouse Monday. "And I had heard about it from other people, but I was hitting well enough to put that idea on the back burner. When he came to me, I said, 'Let me throw a bullpen for everybody and get their perception.' They liked it, but I still was kind of scared to pull the trigger.

"I didn't want any kind of doubt creeping into my mind. Like what if I continued position playing. So when I made that decision, ultimately, I wanted to make it with no regrets."

Santos had fooled around pitching, winning bets in the minors that he could throw in the 90s. But he hadn't thrown off a mound since his freshman year of high school. Now he's throwing in the high 90s, the very high 90s, and locating his complementary pitches.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Matt YorkJeff Samardzija doesn't believe he was rushed into the majors, and he said he learned a lot last year.

After learning to be a pitcher in extended spring training, Santos pitched in four levels last year, never putting up good numbers, but progressing in just 28 2/3 innings. He tacked on another dozen or so in the Arizona Fall League.

Pitching coach Don Cooper certainly sees the potential in Santos' live arm. Santos' first six outings were scoreless. He's struck out 13 in eight innings this spring.

"If he continues to progress and learn and work on things, and if he stays healthy, there's no reason to think by sometime late in the year or maybe next year, he's got a chance to be a strong setup guy with the possibility of maybe being a closer," Cooper said.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has touted the 26-year-old rookie all spring, but he's still not convinced that Santos can hack it in the majors.

"He's still learning," Guillen said. "We might ask him to do a little too much. This is not a process to teach; this is a process to win. And he's got to combine those two things, learning and winning. Hopefully he can handle it."

Santos thanks Bell first for making the team. A simple suggestion might have just changed his life. Maybe it won't work out, and Santos will be looking for another job in a month. But at least he won't have any regrets.

"It's been a long time coming," he said. "If you would've asked me eight years, I would've thought this day would have come five years ago. But that's just the way it goes."

One pitcher is trying to live up to his reputation and his own expectations; the other is trying to escape obscurity and realize that elusive baseball dream.

Spring will turn to summer soon enough, and both players will find where their future lies.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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