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.
The Bears have since acquired a pair of Pro Bowl receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
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.
"And he was there a lot for me, molding me from beginning to end, whether it was pitching on a mound to how to pitch, how to go about your business when you're not pitching,'' Samardzija said in February.
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio said, "Not to say (the other starting pitchers) are any better or worse, but Jeff is probably one of our strongest guys as far as staying on a shoulder program and workout routine."
An appreciative Castillo, meanwhile, has taken notice of Samardzija's increased dedication in the video room. Castillo said Samardzija's preparation takes pressure off the catcher.
"He does his homework," Castillo said. "He's made my job easy. With all the information, we work very quickly."
Reaching the next level
Samardzija took some big steps toward being a workhorse late last season.
Former manager Dale Sveum allowed Samardzija to try to work out of two jams that normally he would have been lifted from. The first time was a success, in a 106-pitch outing, but three starts later, Samardzija was pulled after 114 pitches in a 6-0 loss.
"I remember Dale getting on me because he (said) sometimes in the big games he shows up and other times he's not there," Samardzija said last week. "That got under my skin, and I've since then not tried to be that guy. And I'm working on it."
Through his first 17 starts, Samardzija is on pace to exceed his career high of 2132/3 innings last season and is close to equaling his 214 strikeouts of last year despite a greater commitment this season to pitch more economically so he can pitch deeper in games.
"From a coach perspective, it's understanding what he's got every day and being able to recognize his strengths and weaknesses early," Bosio said. "The plan we've had this year to attack more with the fastball, and everyone says, 'Look, his strikeouts are down.'
"All of a sudden, he's eighth in the league (in strikeouts) because Jeff has that ability to get you three or four different ways. That's the sign of that maturation. ... Before he was a young, hard-throwing hell-of-a-lot-of-ability guy. Now he's more polished, and he's got some bullets now in his holster where he can get you a few different ways. "
Perhaps the biggest debate is over Samardzija's worth as the Cubs explore the possibility of re-signing him and the probability of trading him to a contender.
Bosio has a firm idea of what Samardzija means to the Cubs.
"You've got a true ace in the making, and he's a made man," Bosio said. "He's understood it. He's gotten better. He's got that willingness, that desire, that internal burn — all the things you're looking for from that guy. He's definitely that guy.''
Jake Arrieta's amazing June (4-0, 0.92 ERA) has ignited talk that he can move to the top of the Cubs' rotation if Samardzija is dealt. But one veteran scout said Arrieta needs to pitch deeper in games — a trait Samardzija is mastering this season — to earn that distinction.
"(Samardzija) understands his place, and he's showing he has the makeup of being a true No. 1 guy," former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy of the Red Sox said. "And those guys don't grow on trees."
Peavy turned in the direction of the locker of left-hander Jon Lester, a two-time All-Star who arguably can become the top free-agent pitcher this winter if he doesn't re-sign with the Red Sox.
"He's as good as anyone in the game," Peavy said. "And Jeff is on that level."
Twitter @MDGonzalesCopyright © 2015, RedEye