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jeff samardzija featureI didn’t write Bleacher Nation when the Chicago Cubs drafted Jeff Samardzija back in 2006. I was pretty active on the Cubs-related interwebz, though, and I remember my thoughts about that draft quite well: without picks in the second, third, or fourth rounds (can you even imagine that today?), the Cubs wanted to make sure they got two quality talents with their top two picks. With a limited amateur budget (internally-driven, mind you, since the current CBA bonus pool restrictions were still six years away), the Cubs opted to take an inexpensive college bat in the first round – Tyler Colvin out of Clemson – so that they could save some money for a later gamble. That gamble came with the Cubs’ next pick, and I was totally unimpressed: Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.

I’d like to think it had very little to do with the fact that I was a Michigan football fan, and never cared for Samardzija’s thoroughly wide receiver persona, but I wasn’t happy about the pick. Rather than saving big bucks to sign a top high school player who feel, I felt like the Cubs were saving big bucks just to try and sign football player away from the NFL. Naively, that felt like a waste to me, given how much a guy like Samardzija could make by being a mid-to-late first round pick in the NFL draft. The Cubs could spread that money across a couple high school arms, and really make an impact. Sure, I guess Samardzija had kind of pitched some, but his numbers didn’t look great, and he was older and unpolished, as far as pitchers go. I hadn’t even really heard about him being a big baseball prospect.

I’m glad I didn’t write Bleacher Nation back then, because my thoughts would probably haunt me today.

In time, Samardzija (and the Cubs’ scouting/player development staff) proved me wrong, and Samardzija blossomed into a quality prospect, who looked like a future top tier closer. Hell, I remember seeing him that first time in Spring Training: 97 mph two-seamer that bored in on righties like he’d thrown it with a jai alai basket. I was in love.

Samardzija rose quickly through the Cubs’ system, eventually debuting with the big team for the 2008 stretch run – the best Cubs team in recent memory. From there, Samardzija bounced up and down a bit, in and out of a starting role a bit, and didn’t become a regular in the bigs until 2011. He emerged, particularly in the second half, as a fantastic relief arm, fulfilling the promise of so many scouts; dude really did look like he could become an elite closer.

But then something weird happened. The Cubs’ front office turned over, and the coaching staff changed. Samardzija saw an opportunity, and asked to start. Weirder still, the Cubs obliged him, giving him a full and fair shot to win a rotation job in Spring Training.

I didn’t get it. This guy finally put it all together, and molded himself into a fine reliever after so much previous yo-yoing. Why would you risk losing that with more yo-yoing? Well, I did write Bleacher Nation back then, but thankfully I’ve written so much over the years about Samardzija that I can’t quite find where I said anything too stupid (though I’m sure I did, and I’m sure they’ll follow in the comments – thanks, chums).

Once again, Samardzija proved me wrong. It was clear from thing one in Spring Training that this was a dude who had reinvented himself, and had incredible big league starter upside. That’s not easy to show in Spring Training, but it was crystal clear.

Like the bullpen thing, it took a little time for Samardzija to really put it all together, but, by the time he did, the Cubs had one of the top 10/15 starters in the national league.

And then they traded him to the Oakland A’s.

I both understand and approve of this weekend’s trade, as it was the inevitable conclusion of two sides simply doing what they believed was best for themselves. The Cubs, still in a rebuilding phase and without an unending supply of cash to throw around (yet), had to set a limit on what they could commit to Samardzija; and Samardzija, just starting to show his elite talent and just a year and a half away from free agency, had to set a limit on what he could accept to stay with a rebuilding team. Those limits were too far away, and the Cubs had to capture the asset value for Samardzija now before time ran out.

But it’s not as if Samardzija wasn’t ready for this to happen. Indeed, he’s said how excited he is to be in Oakland, which harkened back to comments he made early in the season, which foreshadowed all that was to come. Here’s what he told Dan Patrick back in April:

I said that [you get tired of the losing] from the beginning. The only reason we’re at where we are now is because of that situation. It it’s a different situation, and we’re winning, competing for the playoffs every year, I think a deal is already done, and I’m there for a long time. But I want to win. I know how old I am. I know when prime years are, and when everything starts changing, and I’m right there. I don’t enjoy rebuilding. When you’re playing the highest level of your sport, every year should be devoted to winning that year, because you don’t know how long it’s going to last. You don’t know many chances you’re going to get to feel this way, and to feel good. I want to win. That’s my number one goal. I don’t care about anything else but winning.

Now, Samardzija will get his chance to win, essentially for the first time since his rookie year back in 2008. You know, when it looked like he might be a dominant reliever someday.

I’ll remember Samardzija’s time in Chicago fondly – he was impressive, candid, funny, and usually effective. He was also among the hardest workers and most focused guys you’ll ever hear about. I deeply respect how often he saw what he wanted, committed 100% to it, and then made it happen. The trade was the right thing to do, but it’s OK to feel a little sad about seeing Samardzija go.

And, who knows? Maybe he’s that rare guy that comes back. He’s surprised me before.

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