Why Jeff Samardzija Has the Stuff to Be a Top Flight No. 1 for the Chicago Cubs
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Stephen Strasburg wasn't the only major league starting pitcher who was shut down for the season last weekend (Sept. 8-9).
The Chicago Cubs took the ball from Jeff Samardzija after his start on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates and called it a season for the 27-year-old right-hander. He went out on an excellent note, pitching the first complete game of his career and holding the Bucs to two earned runs and four hits.
After pitching exclusively as a reliever last year, Samardzija made 28 starts and pitched 174.2 innings for the Cubs this season. That increased workload is the reason for his shutdown. Samardzija pitched 88 innings last year and nearly doubled that total in 2012. He finished with a 9-13 record and a 3.81 ERA.
The question now becomes whether Samardzija comes back next season as the Cubs ace, the No. 1 starter in their rotation. His 3.81 ERA is the best among the Cubs' remaining starting pitchers (Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm were dealt away at the trade deadline). Samardzija also had the best strikeout rate in the rotation, racking up 9.3 Ks per nine innings.
That strikeout rate—compiled with 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings—was the fourth-best among starting pitchers in the National League, better than hurlers such as Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels.
Samardzija featured three pitches in his arsenal this season, one reason he was deemed suitable to move to the starting rotation. Along with a fastball that averaged 95.1 mph according to FanGraphs, he also regularly threw a split-finger fastball and a slider. Samardzija also mixed in a cutter and curveball throughout the season.
Those last two pitches were thrown too infrequently to call Samardzija a five-pitch pitcher. But if he can develop them into weapons that he can use even semi-regularly next year, that's the kind of repertoire typically associated with the top starting pitchers in baseball.
Samardzija seemed to get better as the season progressed, something that has to encourage the Cubs greatly. In the second half of the season, he compiled a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts with 80 strikeouts in 73.1 innings.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum certainly noticed how well Samardzija developed into a top-of-the-rotation starter this season.
‘‘He really did everything we imagined and even more, actually,’’ Sveum said to the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer on Sept. 7. ‘‘We all witnessed the gradual climb he made and the adjustments he had to make, and he did it all. Obviously he didn’t go backwards; he got stronger.
"We want that guy to be our one or two guy … going forward. We want him to be able to be healthy, strong and be able to pitch into October.’’
Matt Garza would certainly have something to say about Samardzija being the Cubs' No. 1 starter in 2013. It's difficult to imagine that Garza would be traded during the offseason after being shut down in early August with a stress reaction in his right elbow.
However, Garza may have been able to return to make one or two starts at the end of this season, so perhaps he'll be healthy enough for the Cubs to shop around this winter. The team would surely prefer to trade him rather than pay whatever he makes through the arbitration process next season. Garza had a $9.5 million salary for 2012.
Samardzija will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next year and is surely in line for a big raise from the $2.64 million he made this season. The Cubs actually declined his $3 million option for this year and gave him a slight pay cut, likely because they weren't certain if he could successfully make the transition from reliever to starter.
But Samardzija obviously confirmed that he's capable of being a starting pitcher in the major leagues and projects to take on a full workload of 32 to 34 starts and 200 innings next season. Pitching a complete game in his final start of this year shows he's capable of handling that responsibility.
Rather than go year to year and give Samardzija annual raises through the arbitration process, the Cubs would surely prefer to control costs and sign him to a long-term contract.
Whether the Cubs want to keep him around and construct their pitching staff around him or eventually deal him to another team for more prospects to rebuild with, locking Samardzija down at a controlled price would be in the team's best interests.
Cubs fans surely don't want to hear anything about trading Samardzija at this point, however. As the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan explained, the Cubs rotation following Samardzija's shutdown consists of Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, Justin Germano, Chris Rusen and Jason Berken. That wouldn't be fun for anyone to watch.
Someone has to be the No. 1 starter and get some wins for the Cubs. Someone has to give this team a chance to win every time he takes the mound. It might as well be Samardzija, even if he'll likely be into his early 30s by the time the Cubs are a contender in the NL Central again.
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