The Chicago Cubs have had two sets of negotiations involving Jeff Samardzija. The two sides have talked about a long-term extension — so far nothing’s been agreed to — and the sides seem pretty far apart. The front office also has fielded some trade offers, and while you can never be entirely certain about rumors, certain reports have painted the asking price as astronomical. From the Toronto Blue Jays, the Cubs supposedly wanted Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and more. From the Braves, the Cubs supposedly wanted Justin Upton or Jason Heyward. Even if the names are off, the message is clear: the Cubs are looking for a massive haul. Last year, Samardzija posted a worse ERA than Kevin Correia and Jeremy Hefner.
It’s been suggested the Cubs want more for Samardzija than the Rays have been looking for in return for David Price. Samardzija, of course, isn’t as good as Price. On the other hand, he’s considerably cheaper, and Samardzija isn’t coming off a season with an arm injury. His big-league health history is clean. So it’s not an outlandish position, but nothing’s been agreed to yet, because no one’s been willing to give up what the Cubs have wanted. More recent reports have suggested the Cubs intend to revisit the Samardzija trade market in the middle of the season. At first, it seems like this could only deflate Samardzija’s value. It would, after all, leave him with less time to make a contribution to a new employer. But there are good reasons for the Cubs to stick to their guns. Come June or July, they could still turn Samardzija into a blockbuster.
Something to establish right away: Teams like Jeff Samardzija, and that’s why he’s in demand. They like him because he’s really good. He’s not ace-good, but he’s not Correia-mediocre. The strikeouts are there. He throws in the mid-90s with multiple secondary pitches. His xFIP- two years ago was 87, and his xFIP- last year was 92. He also threw more than 200 innings. His runs haven’t quite matched his peripherals, and he’s given up a few too many dingers, but teams are increasingly willing to look beyond those things. Samardzija feels like a hell of a talent. He’s getting paid just over $5 million this year, and next year he stands to make something like $8 million to $10 million, which isn’t much for a front-of-the-rotation kind of starter. If you know what “surplus value” means, Samardzija has some. The days of the market caring too much about ERA are over.
And besides, if the Cubs hang on to Samardzija for a few months, there’s a good chance his ERA comes in line with the rest of his statistics. And then he’d be a power starter with strikeouts and a mid-3.00 ERA, and that’s generally what every team in playoff contention wants to add.
Anyhow, there are two reasons why it could make sense for the Cubs to wait on this. The first has to do with that win-curve argument again. If Samardzija were traded now, he’d be with a new team for 12 months, plus up to two months of the playoffs. If he were traded, say, at the beginning of this July, he’d be with a new team for nine months, plus up to two months of the playoffs. That would represent some reduction in value, since Samardzija, for 2014, wouldn’t be making a full-season contribution.
But that can be offset. Right now, we think we have a decent idea of the teams that will be in the hunt. In the middle of the season, we’ll know which teams are in the hunt. Teams will know with greater certainty their positions on the win curve, and for those on the bubble, you can think of the leverage as increasing. Sometimes a single in the eighth inning can be worth twice as much as a single in the first inning. Likewise, an added win down the stretch can be worth twice as much as an added win from the get-go. As teams understand their positions with greater clarity, they can become willing to pay more for the same improvement because that improvement is actually worth more. Every game down the stretch can mean more, and more with regard to the playoff odds, so every improvement can be amplified. At least in theory, this should offset the lost three or four months.
And, of course, a new team would still have Samardzija for 2015. And a new team would still have Samardzija for the 2014 playoffs, were that team to qualify. A team trading for Samardzija in 2014 would be trying to get him for the most important months of its season, and there could be a lot of value there for the Cubs to acquire. A very similar amount to what they might be able to get today.
And there’s a second reason for the Cubs to be patient. Right now, Samardzija is available in trade talks. David Price has been available in trade talks. Ervin Santana is a free agent. Ubaldo Jimenez is a free agent. A.J. Burnett is a free agent. Not long ago, Masahiro Tanaka finally signed. For teams looking for quality starting pitching, there are options, and there have been options. There’s a half-decent supply to meet the demand, and teams with pitching needs are still holding out as a consequence.
Something we can say with a high degree of certainty is the Cubs aren’t going to contend in 2014. One of the reasons for the Rays hanging onto Price is that they can make the playoffs right away with him. They’re a title contender. The Cubs are still rebuilding. What that means is that, as soon as the season begins, Price is off the market. The Rays won’t trade him if they’re playing for something. The free agents will find homes. In short, as the season progresses, some times will hang in the race while some teams will fall out. And if you look at the teams likely to fall out, it’s hard to see a better pitcher becoming available in trade talks than Samardzija.
Of course, we can’t predict the standings at the season’s end, so we can’t predict the standings in the middle of the year. But the Cubs probably won’t be very good, and they’ll have Samardzija to offer. The Marlins probably won’t be very good, but they don’t have anyone comparable they’d trade. The Astros probably won’t be very good, but they don’t have anyone comparable they’d trade. The White Sox might listen on, say, Jose Quintana, but he’s got less sex appeal and Chicago might want to keep him. The Twins aren’t going to have anything great. The Phillies aren’t going to have anything great that isn’t paid like it. The Brewers might have Yovani Gallardo, but they might be close to the race, and Gallardo’s declining. The Mets aren’t going to have anything great. With the new rules, more teams feel like they’re in contention, meaning fewer teams feel like sellers. Among the probable sellers, it’s unlikely anyone will be offering a better starting pitcher than Jeff Samardzija.
So he could be the biggest-impact pitcher available; he could generate a ton of interest among teams looking to make a splash. Matt Garza last year fetched a good package, and Garza was in a contract year. Samardzija could and should have fewer questions. Zack Greinke fetched a good package in 2012, and he was in a contract year. Samardzija still has another year after this — a year in which he’ll be underpaid. While a team looking toward 2015 could wait to try to deal for Price in the offseason, Samardzija would also make that immediate difference for the stretch run and for October. As the prime piece, Samardzija could get a prime return.
Naturally, as with everything, there are certain risks in taking the patient approach. Maybe the standings work out differently and there are other good starting pitchers who become available in the middle of the season. More significantly, Samardzija could get hurt — because any pitcher could get hurt — and hurt pitchers aren’t desirable pitchers. There’s also some chance Samardzija continues to pitch below his peripherals, and that could hurt his value. But his health history is perfect, his stuff is terrific and the best starters generally pitch for teams that ought to be in the hunt. Failing that, they’re generally franchise starters who won’t get moved, like, say, Jose Fernandez. Every decision in baseball comes with risk, but there’s good reason for the Cubs to believe they can drum up a huge Samardzija market in June or July. So if the Cubs don’t like the proposals others have been making, the team doesn’t need to sell him now
At the moment, there are multiple good starters available, and teams have set plans. Come the middle of the summer, there will be fewer good starters available, and set plans will have gone awry. Odds are that Jeff Samardzija will be effective and on the market. And odds are Samardzija will get traded then, for a package that makes the Cubs rather happy. They don’t need to hurry up, because in some time, it’ll be the other teams that are feeling desperate.
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