Cubs should sign Samardzija to contract extension
Right-handed ace deserves to be around when Chicago starts winning again
Jeff Samardzija, the most discussed pitcher in baseball, just did something he had not done in 275 days. He picked up a win.
It was an achievement that wouldn't have been such a big deal if it had come on Opening Day, when he lost to the Pirates, 1-0, in Pittsburgh. Or on April 5, when the Phillies' Cliff Lee beat him, 2-0, at Wrigley Field.
If any Cubs player could have gotten a big hit, Samardzija would have beaten the White Sox on May 5, when he gave up one run in nine innings. And it was almost beyond belief that he didn't get the win Wednesday, when closer Hector Rondon suffered a blown save, with the tying run scoring on a throwing error by defensive replacement Darwin Barney.
But like those 105 years the Cubs have gone without winning the World Series, all those disappointments were yesterday. It's today that matters -- and, given the team's 19-30 record, tomorrow and all the tomorrows afterward.
The Cubs need a lot of bold moves to get from where they are to where they need to be, and the next of those moves should be to take Samardzija off the trade market by signing him to a contract extension. He's suffered more than anyone at Clark and Addison the last six seasons. He deserves to be around when they start winning again.
That might not be as long as you think, either.
A wave of prospects is on its way, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo are hitting the ball and the Cubs' pitching staff is doing a solid job. The work of Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood and the power arms in the bullpen is the biggest reason that the Cubs' run differential is -2, which ranks third in the National League Central and ninth in the NL -- not great but a step forward over last year's -87.
"Win-loss records can be deceiving,'' Hammel said recently, pointing out that the Cubs should have won more games than they have.
They're 3-10 in one-run games, and rookie manager Rick Renteria is holding a -5 mark compared to Bill James' Pythagorean standings, which show the Cubs should be 24-25.
The Cubs believe they have hitters coming to slot into the middle of the order and lengthen the lineup. The commodity they have -- and almost everyone else has -- in short supply is front-of-the-rotation arms. It's silly to trade one when you're going to need more of them going forward.
Samardzija and the Cubs haven't been close when they've discussed his value previously, with the Cubs reportedly going only into the neighborhood of Matt Harrison's deal with the Rangers (five years, $55 million with a club option for a sixth year). Samardzija bet on himself by turning that down and has since shown that the better measuring stick is the Reds' Homer Bailey.
Bailey is 28; Samardzija is 29. Since the All-Star break in 2012, Bailey has gone 21-19 with a 3.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.29 strikeouts per nine innings in 58 starts; Samardzija is 13-22 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 8.90 strikeouts per nine innings in 55 starts.
Samardzija gave up four runs in the Cubs' 8-4 win in San Francisco on Monday but still is second in the Majors with a 1.68 ERA. He's hardly doing it with mirrors, either. Research by MLB Network shows that Samardzija's fastballs average 93.6 mph and are thrown for strikes 70 percent of the time. The league average velocity is 91.6 mph with an average strike percentage of 65.
Like Bailey when he's on (which hasn't been the case lately), Samardzija is a stud. The Reds locked up Bailey for six years with a $105 million contract in February. That deal set a precedent that seems relevant to the Samardzija negotiations.
Would that keep Samardzija around until he's 35? Only he knows. But before trading him, the Cubs need to find out. They have only $31.1 million on the books for next year and $20.8 million for 2017, after Edwin Jackson's deal is up.
Theo Epstein has said that in a perfect world you would never sign a free agent. He means that you would build your organization through the First-Year Player Draft and international signings and then either hang on to your homegrown stars or trade them for someone else's players.
Fans in Chicago and other places have learned a lot about players as "fungible assets'' in recent years. The business theory is sound. But can you really trade a pitcher as driven and as skillful as Samardzija and improve your organizational pitching?
That will be a good trick if the Cubs can pull it off.
This should be a seller's market this season, with only a handful of teams out of Wild Card consideration, but it will still be a difficult proposition to get someone's top level pitching prospect -- especially one on the threshold of the Major Leagues -- for Samardzija. One report says the Blue Jays would not include Drew Hutchison in a Samardzija trade over the offseason, and you wonder if anyone else will trade a high-tier, advanced prospect when they could just put that guy into their own rotation.
Maybe you trade Samardzija if the Rockies will give you Jon Gray, the University of Oklahoma stud the Cubs passed on to take power hitter Kris Bryant in last year's Draft. But most offers the Cubs will receive are sure to come with tremendous risk.
As for the risk that Samardzija would be heading toward his mid-30s at the end of a six-year extension, think about James Shields of the Royals. He's highly valuable as the leader of a young staff. That's the guy Samardzija could become if he sticks around. It's not too late for him to remain a big part of the Cubs' future, although trade speculation wouldn't be the same without him.