Chicago Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija is almost assuredly out the door. The only real question facing general manager Jed Hoyer is whether moving Samardzija now—or waiting until the non-waiver trade deadline—is in the Cubs’ best interest.
To be sure, it's not an easy decision to make. On one hand, Hoyer has been quite successful in recent seasons trading starting pitchers at the deadline for impact prospects. On the other hand, Samardzija's situation is a unique one.
All things considered, though, the time to move Samardzija is now—and there is more than one reason for that.
Center Stage and the MLBPA
Samardzija is standing by himself on the center stage. In five starts heading into Tuesday, he had a 1.53 ERA, 2.77 FIP (fielding independent pitcher), 1.104 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 35.1 innings pitched. He has looked as good as the numbers indicate.
Better yet, if his last three starts of the 2013 season are taken into consideration, he has recorded eight straight quality starts (QS). Now the QS stat is tricky since it only requires that a pitcher throws six innings and gives up three earned runs or fewer, which translates into a 4.50 ERA. Taken en masse, however, it is a fantastic way to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, and few have been better over the same stretch.
Simply put, he has the highest profile right now out of any pitcher who could be available. He is better than Kyle Kendrick and Trevor Cahill, who were recently mentioned by B/R’s Scott Miller. With the exception of Max Scherzer and James Shields—who are both free agents at the end of the season—Samardzija is the best of the best.
Building off his recent run of dominance, Samardzija’s great hope is that he can turn it into a positive for the Major League Baseball Players Association and the next group of players that make it to the big leagues. He had this to say, via CSNChicago.com’s Patrick Mooney:
What does drive me is protecting and setting up the players behind me, the future generations, so that I’m not signing any of these crummy early deals for seven or eight years.
When you’re hitting your prime and you’re hitting free agency — like it’s supposed to be done — then that’s the way it sets up for guys behind you. I definitely have a responsibility to the players that are younger than me and approaching arbitration or approaching free agency to keep the numbers where they should be.
Of course, the “crummy early deals” Samardzija referred to include the extensions Chris Sale (five years, $32.5 million), Freddie Freeman (eight years, $135 million) and Mike Trout (six years, $144.5 million) recently agreed to with their respective ballclubs. To be sure, those are team-friendly contracts, but in no way are they bad deals for the players.
Each of them has now achieved a level of financial security in their early 20s they could only have dreamed of a few years ago and are still able to sign a larger contract if they continue to perform and stay healthy. Samardzija missed that boat and, at age 29, is playing for his one big payday.
By flatly stating his intention of seeking a contract that may be above his skill set, Samardzija put the entire league on notice that whoever trades for him will have to work to retain his services. Doesn’t it then make sense to trade the right-hander sooner, rather than later? After all, if Hoyer is going to get the maximum in return, Samardzija needs to be able to start as many games as possible for his new team.
Diminishing Returns and Debt Burden
Not too long ago, Aaron Gleeman from Hardball Talk noted Samardzija isn’t “a free agent until after the 2015 season, so there’s no huge rush for the Cubs to sign him or trade him.” Now Gleeman has a valid point, but doesn’t the opposite also hold true?
Since there are potentially 50-plus starts to be had given his remaining arbitration year, wouldn’t Samardzija demand more in return now, instead of waiting three months for the non-waiver trade deadline? And what happens if the Notre Dame alum suffers an injury? What if he goes through a rough stretch on the mound?
Any one of those could impact Samardzija’s value enough that Hoyer may only get one or two high-level prospects (if that) in return, versus two or three. That's a significant level of depreciation.
Another thing to consider is the financial uncertainty facing the organization in general, which Danny Ecker from Crain’s Chicago Business detailed earlier this year. Ownership, Ecker wrote, “has a significant pile of debt as a result of its highly leveraged purchase of the team, which limits how much it can spend on the team because of Major League Baseball debt ratio rules.”
There is also the ongoing battle with the rooftop owners that is delaying stadium renovations to consider, per SI.com’s Tim Newcomb. And don't forget about the public plaza and hotel that was approved last year after a lengthy battle in Chicago’s City Council but hasn’t had a ground-breaking ceremony yet and an uncertain future on local television.
It’s a mess on the North Side of Chicago. In response to the financial uncertainty, the Ricketts family, who bought the team in the 2009, has considered selling minority options to “alleviate” some of the financial burden, according to Ecker. Those shares will only do so much, however.
All told, Hoyer and the rest of the front office have their hands "pinned down by certain externally-created limitations" when it comes to increasing payroll, according to Brett Taylor from Bleacher Nation. All the more reason to cut ties now rather than in three months.
The Dominoes Have Already Fallen
Now let's forget about debt burdens and union sympathies for a moment and consider that there are contending teams, right now, that could be willing to pay handsomely for a starter of Samardzija’s caliber.
The New York Yankees, for example, have a rotation beset with question marks. First, Ivan Nova sustained a season-ending elbow injury. Then the Yankees found out that Michael Pineda has a Grade 1 strain to the teres major muscle and will miss "three to four weeks by the time he builds his strength back up enough to return," per CBS Sports' Matt Snyder.
The Atlanta Braves are another team who may be looking for an upgrade on the mound. Sure, their pitching staff has a 2.04 ERA going into action on Tuesday, but they'll be without Kris Medlen for the rest of the year after he underwent Tommy John surgery. And the Oakland A’s lost their ace, Jarrod Parker, after he suffered a similar fate.
Three teams. Three playoff contenders. And they are not alone.
More than half the teams in MLB are two games under .500 or better. Each division had multiple squads in position to make it to the postseason. Parity has reared is much-anticipated head, and the baseball world is up for grabs.
If there was a time to seize upon the needs of the many, it is now. The moment is at hand for the Cubs to trade Samardzija.
Waiting only forestalls the inevitable and puts the return at risk.