Samardzija getting a chance to start for Cubs

After posting a 2.97 earned-run average and logging 88 innings out of the Chicago Cubs' bullpen in 2011, right-hander Jeff Samardzija is getting an opportunity to start in camp this year.

With Cactus League games getting under way and most positions in the field set, the Cubs' battles to watch are on the mound.

There are five spots open, and the Cubs insist they have more than five viable candidates for the starting rotation. The only two spots seemingly secure are Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. The rest is a jumble, featuring holdover Randy Wells along with newcomers Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Chris Volstad.

Right-hander Rodrigo Lopez is back as a non-roster man, and youngster Casey Coleman is trying to prove he belongs in the big leagues.

The other intriguing name to watch is big right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who had a breakthrough season out of the bullpen last year. The Cubs will "stretch out" Samardzija to start during exhibition games, but the conventional wisdom has him going back to the bullpen when the regular season starts.

But manager Dale Sveum has said he likes Samardzija's "power body," one he said is conducive to starting.

"That's going to be the million-dollar question in spring training," Sveum said. "Against live hitters ... he threw the heck out of the ball and had great command, which he has every time. It's going to be an interesting decision come later this month."

Samardzija has had success as a starter in the minor leagues, but he has been used mostly as a reliever in the big leagues. He has long maintained a desire to start and said it wasn't for selfish reasons.

"I just really feel like I can really help this team out in areas where starting pitching is important: eating up innings, being consistent, keeping your team in the game," he said. "I really think I can do that. And I enjoy being an athlete out there as a starter. I enjoy fielding my position. I enjoy hitting and bunting. I just want to play baseball. I just feel that as the athlete I am, I can bring that aspect to the game every fifth day."

Cubs Notes & Quotes

  • C Geovany Soto has been slowed in camp with a groin strain. Soto, who played in 125 games last year, said the injury is not serious even if it means he might miss a few Cactus League games. Soto's absence will give the Cubs a chance to look at potential backups in Welington Castillo and Steve Clevenger, both of whom saw brief big league action in 2011. The Cubs would like to see Castillo remain healthy, and they're intrigued by Clevenger's left-handed bat and improved defense.

  • 2B Darwin Barney has put on weight this winter -- about 20 pounds of solid weight -- in an effort to avoid a second-half drop-off like the one that plagued him last season. Barney, 26, batted .306 before the All-Star break last year only to fall off to .238 in the unofficial second half.

    "I was excited about it, but I want to be better," Barney said of his first full year in the big leagues. "I spent the offseason working on my diet. I lost a little weight last year." Manager Dale Sveum said he likes what he sees so far from Barney. "He's a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought," Sveum said. "His first step is really good."

  • LF Alfonso Soriano could end up anywhere in the Cubs' lineup. Most recently, manager Dale Sveum said Soriano could bat leadoff on occasion. That came on the heels of Sveum saying Soriano could get time in the cleanup spot along with 1B Bryan LaHair. Soriano was the Cubs main leadoff man from 2007 through the middle of the 2009 season, when then-manager Lou Piniella moved him down in the order.

    "The one thing about Soriano is that his numbers as a leadoff hitter are pretty good in his career whether he's leading off a game or leading off an inning, his numbers are pretty incredible over his career," Sveum said.

  • OFs Matt Szczur and Brett Jackson stole the show in the team's first intrasquad game. Szczur had a grand slam, a double and six RBI. Jackson homered, had two walks and a double. Neither figures to make the Opening Day roster, but each fits into the team's plans. Jackson, a left-handed batter, likely will be up sometime this year. He's a center fielder. Szczur, who bats right-handed, was a football star at Villanova. He figures to start at Class A Daytona or Class AA Tennessee.

  • SS Starlin Castro was OK after being hit on the right wrist by a fastball from RHP Kerry Wood in the early workouts. "I was never scared," Castro said. "I'm only scared if it hits me in the head." Expect Castro to get plenty of action in the No. 3 spot in the order during spring games as he moves down from the leadoff spot to accommodate RF David DeJesus and anybody else manager Dale Sveum experiments with in the top spot.

  • By the Numbers: 62 – LF Alfonso Soriano has 62 career plate appearances as a cleanup hitter, going 11-for-56 (.196). Soriano may see action as a No. 4 hitter this year. As a leadoff man, where he also may bat at times this coming year, he has 3,630 plate appearances and a hitting line of .288/.338/.538.

  • Quote to Note: "I've been really impressed. He's one of those ultimate professionals who will try to make himself a better player every day." -- Manager Dale Sveum on 2B Darwin Barney.

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