WASHINGTON — As recently as three years ago, the running joke was that Jeff Samardzija was the best wide receiver in Chicago.
That was as much a jab at Samardzija's slow evolution as a pitcher as at the Bears' struggles to roster quality receivers.
And Samardzija, a former All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, has turned his football career into a distant memory. The 29-year-old has blossomed into one of the elite pitchers in the National League and one of the most coveted players heading toward the July 31 trade deadline.
"I'll be glad if he's out of the league," one National League coach said with a smile during the Cubs' recent homestand.
There were no shortcuts for Samardzija's evolution, just gradual stadium-high steps to the top of the Cubs' rotation.
Leaving football behind
"We loved the arm but knew he was a Notre Dame two-sport star," one former Cubs operative said. "Many teams don't take a chance on that with the money he could have received in football.''
But the Cubs, who didn't have a draft pick from the second through the fourth round of the 2006 draft, showed enough faith to select Samardzija in the fifth round and eventually gave him a five-year, $10 million contract that included a no-trade clause in return for pursuing baseball full time.
Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins, who played with Samardzija at short-season Class A Boise in 2006, related his former teammate's ascent to author Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule'' in his best seller "Outliers: The Story of Success," which posits that mastering a craft can be achieved by devoting 20 hours a week for 10 years.
"He knew what he was trying to do," Blevins said. "It was one of those things he hadn't the innings or the pitches yet. The Cubs recognized that it was a matter of time before he mastered (it).
"That's pretty much what he needed to do, as well as focus on his delivery, and it shows. He's become an elite pitcher."
"I faced him in college when he was at Notre Dame, and he hit 100 mph on the radar gun," recalled Blevins, who played at Dayton. "Everyone talked about how electric he was going to be as an amazing closer some day. That was if he wasn't going to be a starter."
Three factors played a major role in Samardzija's transformation from a raw, hard-throwing closer candidate to a front-line starter — better command of his fastball and secondary pitchers, an increased commitment to offseason workouts and spending lots of time in the video room.
"It would have been a popular and easy thing for Jeff to remain a closer," the former Cubs evaluator recalled. "But he wanted more and knew what he needed to improve on."
Welington Castillo, Samardzija's catcher dating to the minors in 2007, has witnessed Samardzija's improvement.
"If he couldn't command his fastball, he couldn't pitch," Castillo said. "When he was on, he could get through the lineup a couple times with his fastball. Then all his other pitches followed his fastball, and it helped set up his split-finger (fastball). And how he's got the cutter and the slider."
As a rookie reliever in 2008, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Samardzija began to absorb the offseason training methods of veteran Ryan Dempster as he learned how to prepare as a baseball player instead of a football player.
That required waking up at 6 a.m. in November and December to perform what Samardzija described in February as "Dempster workouts,'' which included hiking about 1,300 feet up steep Camelback Mountain in Arizona.