Did Jeff Samardzija Make the Right Career Choice in Choosing Baseball Over Football?

By Tony Andracki

With the NFL Draft making headlines (and waves), I found myself looking at Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija a little bit differently.

Everybody is arguing over who should be the No. 1 overall pick, or who each team should select with their first-round pick. And I say, let them argue. I’m no expert on that. But, I like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert on the Cubs (though that could provide a debate in and of itself) and I can provide some insight on Samardzija’s career path.

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija delivers a pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals in the second inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 13, 2010. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

As you all remember, Jeffrey Alan Samardzija was once a stud receiver at one of the top football institutions in America, back when Notre Dame was, indeed, a top football institution. His flowing locks could be seen billowing through the air as he floated in and out of the endzone, hauling in pass after pass from the one and only Brady Quinn.

However, Samardzija was also a pretty good (but not great) pitcher on the ND baseball team. His numbers got progressively worse as his career wore on (from a 2.95 ERA to 3.89 to 4.33 while his K/9 jumped from 6.56 to 7.16 only to drop to 6.28 in his final season), but he was still a highly touted prospect for the pros.

So, Samardzija was faced with a decision in 2006. Should he pursue his dream of playing professional football in the NFL, or should he pursue his dream of playing professional baseball in the MLB?

One thing Jeff had to consider was the average career length for each sport. While NFL players average right around three years per career, baseball was at 5.6 years back in 2007, the last time a true study was conducted.

However, those aren’t wholly accurate. Those numbers include players who do not make the pro rosters and that brings down the numbers. Several days ago (on April 18, to be exact), NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mentioned that the average career length of a player who makes the Opening Day roster is more like six years.

And for baseball, that number was skewed because there is a Minor League system in place that the NFL simply does not have.

However, when it comes down to it, logic says baseball players have a longer career than football players. You don’t see a lot of receivers past the age of 33 in the NFL, but you see plenty of pitchers still whiffing Major League hitters at that age.

So, Jeff chose baseball. He took his $2.5 million signing bonus and inked a five-year deal worth $10 million total. If the Cubs exercised the 2012-13 options, the deal would be worth $16.5 million over seven years.

Money-wise, that seems pretty good. I mean, pro football deals for rookies rarely last as long as five years, let alone seven turns of the calendar. So, he had job security. Plus, the $2.5 million signing bonus gave him some pocket change to immediately join the lifestyle of the rich and famous and find himself a real housewife of…wherever…to  pamper.

So, he came out pretty good in his bank account and at just 26, he has arguably a decade left in his pro baseball career.

But, will he last that long?

In his first season in the Majors, during the Cubs’ 2008 pennant race, Samardzija boasted a 2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings. But, he followed that up with ERAs of 7.53 and 8.38 in the next two years, with a 1.76 WHIP in ’09 and a shockingly awful 2.12 WHIP last season.

However, things did start turning up in ’11 for the young fireballer and his flowing mane of hair.

In the midst of a make-or-break year, Samardzija has posted a 3.14 ERA in 14.1 innings with 16 Ks. He does, however, have a whopping 14 walks. But, after nine walks and five earned runs in his first six innings, Jeff has 11 strikeouts and just five walks and four hits in his last five appearances, spanning 8.1 innings. Oh yeah, and he hasn’t allowed a run of any kind in that timeframe.

Samardzija said he wanted to play baseball for the love of the game.

“Baseball is my first love. I’ve played it my whole life,” the Indiana native said in an ESPN article after signing the five-year deal.

Sounds like he made the right choice to me.

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