Back in 2006 when the Chicago Cubs drafted pitcher Jeff Samardzija in the fifth round of the amateur draft, it was tough to tell how fans should feel.
After all, this was a pitcher who had limited stuff when it came to variety of pitches, with only a fastball really at his full command. He also was a standout wide receiver at the University of Notre Dame, and the odds were strong that he could have made it in an NFL career if he had chosen to do so.
Instead, Samardzija opted to go the baseball route, and he slowly made his way through the Cubs’ minor league system. He didn’t blow anybody away in his first few years of minor league ball, going 6-11 with a 4.57 ERA in 2007 in high-A and AA, and in 2008 he went 7-6 with a 4.29 ERA in 21 starts between AA and AAA.
Those numbers aren’t all that impressive, but the Cubs opted to call him up anyway, and in 26 games with the North Siders in 2008, Samardzija had a really nice 2.28 ERA out of the bullpen, and struck out nearly a batter per inning.
It really hasn’t been until he’s become a full-time starter in the big leagues that he has really earned his keep at this level. In 61 starts between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Samardzija has struck out 394 batters in 388 1/3 innings, and his 3.81 ERA in 2012 and 4.34 ERA in 2013 are actually solid numbers for a guy who plays on a defensively weak club.
It is perhaps those kinds of strikeout numbers that have emboldened Samardzija to seek the kind of money in restricted free agency that he is asking the Cubs for. When the two sides exchanged arbitration numbers earlier this month, Samardzija asked for $6.2 million, while the Cubs offered him just $4.4 million.
With the pitcher still two years away from unrestricted free agency, the Cubs are left in a bit of a pickle when it comes to what to do with Samardzija. The difference between the two figures the sides have exchanged may not seem like a lot, but the Cubs’ only giving Samardzija 75% of what he asked for is an interesting choice.
ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers has more on the subject:
“If he were a free agent, even with a 4.34 ERA in 2013, he’d be commanding $10 million or more a season.
“He wants that kind of money now – in fact, he wants more than that – and in exchange he’ll play for a losing team while putting off free agency, which as of now would happen after the 2015 season. The Cubs will skip his arbitration years and pay him a decent salary, but they aren’t going to give him, say, $15 million a year, not now. Unlike the relatively small difference – just $1.8 million – in their requests for 2014, the long-term deal could be the difference in tens of millions of dollars. Neither side is budging.”
If Samardzija actually has visions in his head of getting a deal worth $15 million a season (and there’s no confirmation of this kind of demand other than Rogers’ hypothetical scenario), then the Cubs aren’t likely going to be the team to give it to him. Samardzija just turned 29 years old last week, and with a new regime in place that seems to have a focus on getting the most out of guys as they hit their prime, rather than paying them for past performance, it doesn’t seem likely that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are going to commit that kind of paper to a guy who will be turning 30 next year.
With that in mind, the question could ultimately come down to when, not if, the Cubs will unload Samardzija in a trade. Hoyer has shown a knack for getting some great value for solid starting pitchers during his time in Chicago (see: the Scott Feldman and Matt Garza trades, which netted some fantastic results), and if he decides that it’s time to part ways with Samardzija, there are surely a good number of teams that would desire his services.
With teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays both in a better position to contend than the Cubs are, they could be willing to pay a high enough price to entice the Cubs to pull the trigger on a deal before the season even starts. If the Cubs have no interest in signing Samardzija to a long-term deal, it would make sense for them to settle before his case gets to arbitration, preserve his final year of arbitration eligibility by not giving him a longer-term deal, then trade him away with the maximum amount of time before he can hit free agency.
Of course, the Cubs will likely eschew that strategy, and will probably wait to deal him until it’s closer to the July 31st trade deadline. That is partly out of a desire to get more for him (an 8-13 record with a 4.34 ERA isn’t exactly stellar, and teams may be more lax to give up on top prospects to acquire him because of it), but it also would fall in line with the team’s current needs. The Cubs aren’t exactly talent rich in terms of starting pitchers, and they may want to buy more time for guys like Kyle Hendricks to get more innings under their belts in AAA before calling them up to the majors.
Guys like CJ Edwards and Pierce Johnson are still a couple of years away from being full-time big leaguers, so keeping Samardzija in the fold for a little while longer might make more sense to Hoyer and company than trading him before the season begins.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with Samardzija, but whatever decision they make, it will provide a lot of insight into how the club is approaching the 2014 season and beyond.
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