Fiery Sampson determined to win rotation spot

March 8th, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- feels like he is close to finding his rhythm again on the mound. The Spring Training box scores may not offer much evidence at the moment, but the Cubs pitcher knows what he feels, as opposed to what fans might see.

"I'm not going to back down," Sampson said after his part in Tuesday's 9-6 win over the Rangers.

Sampson was referring to the controlled Cactus League environment, allowing him to continue to throw fastballs when his execution is off. Really, though, that comment from the pitcher also fits when it comes to how he has carved his path to this moment in his career.

Counted out and cast aside at multiple turns over his decade-plus in pro ball, the 31-year-old Sampson is now in the hunt for the Cubs' lone rotation vacancy. He earned the opportunity through solid performances for Chicago, but also by winning manager David Ross' trust.

"Look at his career and bouncing around and having to prove himself," Ross said earlier this spring. "Keeping that chip on your shoulder is important."

At Surprise Stadium, Sampson surrendered a trio of home runs in 2 2/3 innings, giving him six homers allowed in 4 1/3 innings in Cactus League play. The righty was also hit hard during a simulated game between the pair of Spring Training outings.

Sampson said a main issue he is ironing out is creating more separation between his sinker and four-seam fastball. When those pitches are not functioning properly, the result is too many left over the middle. In a preseason setting, a pitcher has the luxury to work on such things.

"I'm very lucky it's Spring Training -- that's the biggest thing right now," Sampson said.

That said, Sampson is also balancing that aspect of the spring with the fact that he is in a competition with Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad for the rotation's fifth spot. Sampson avoided arbitration with a $1.9 million salary over the offseason, but he does have Minor League options remaining.

When the Cubs signed Sampson and kept him on the 40-man roster all winter, that was a vote of confidence in the righty. And it was not something that Sampson has taken for granted.

"It's a prize for anybody to be on it," Sampson said of sticking on the roster. "I mean, for however many times [teams] called me and said, 'Oh, the 40-man spot's valuable, but we've got to take you off,' you almost become numb to those words.

"[Being on the roster] is a big deal. So I've tried to accept that as a big deal. But I know that now the next step is to make the Opening Day roster."

The Cubs initially signed Sampson in May 2021 after he spent the '20 campaign pitching for the Lotte Giants in Korea. His previous MLB experience came via a cup of coffee with the Mariners in '16 and sporadic work with the Rangers across '18-19.

"I remember coming back [from overseas] and not getting a job," Sampson said. "Spring Training has gone by. Still no job. And that kind of freaked me out. But I knew my ability."

During a rough rebuilding season for Chicago in 2021, Sampson was a valuable piece down the stretch for the bullpen and rotation. The Cubs brought him back in '22, when he turned in a 3.11 ERA in 21 appearances (19 starts) for the North Siders.

The moment Sampson really showed something to Ross arrived in the wake of the pitcher working 4 2/3 scoreless innings of relief on June 19 against the Braves. Facing a roster crunch, Sampson was being optioned back to Triple-A Iowa. Sampson did not feel he deserved the demotion and he let the manager know it.

"I mean, he still brings it up here and there," Sampson said with a smirk. "I think he does it in a positive way, though. He knows it's a strength of mine to kind of be a little fiery."

Sampson was back with the Cubs a few days later, given the chance to start, and the righty did not look back. He led Chicago in innings (98 2/3) from June 25 through the end of the season. Sampson finished his campaign with a 1.71 ERA in his final eight turns.

That self-belief, combined with solid results, is "why he's in the talk for the fifth starter role," Ross said.

"All that stuff's good," added the manager. "But you can't ever let off the gas."