Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

jeff samardzija white soxI’ll never understand why the very mention of Jeff Samardzija makes some Cubs fans discontented.

Samardzija was a guy who worked his butt off to get to the big leagues after being bounced back and forth between the upper minors and the bigs, between the rotation and the bullpen. Then, he established himself as a quality reliever when that was what the team needed. Then, he convinced the team to let him move into the rotation (where there was also a need), and he established himself as a quality starter. He was so quality, indeed, that when the Cubs paired him with Jason Hammel in a 2014 trade, they got one of the impact-iest prospects in baseball in Addison Russell (not to mention Billy McKinney and Dan Straily, too).

What’s not to like? His confidence? The fact that he had struggles at times (like almost any pitcher)? The fact that he had a really down 2015?

I suppose I’ll consider crediting the last one, given that his ERA/FIP/xFIP were an ugly 4.96/4.23/4.31. But it seems like the White Sox tried to change him quite a bit, dramatically increasing his slider and cutter usage at the expense of his fastball (especially his two-seamer), despite the fact that, coming into the year, the cutter had been consistently one of his least effective pitches (and his two-seamer had been one of his most effective). His groundball rate, which had started to approach well above-average territory in 2014, plummeted. As did his strikeout rate. Even his splitter was hit much harder than it had been in the past (perhaps because it wasn’t being set up as well/as often by the fastball?). I won’t pretend to know the precise issues last year, but I know enough to know that you could look at a guy who had so many things changed with a new team, and you could question whether a poor fit derailed him a bit.

Before 2015, Samardzija, who turns 31 in January and who received a qualifying offer from the White Sox, had been a fantastic starting pitcher with the Cubs (and A’s), and, so, I don’t find it especially surprising to learn that there is interest in a reunion now that he’s a free agent.

A Tribune report indicates that the Cubs “plan to explore” pursuing Samardzija, and a CSN report adds that there is “some level” of mutual interest coming from Samardzija.

An interesting pair of questions in any Samardzija pursuit is whether the righty wants a very short-term deal – as in, one year – so that he can try and rebuild his value in 2016, and then hit free agency again when the class is much weaker after next season*; and whether the Cubs would be willing to give up a draft pick to sign Samardzija in such a situation. Given the value he could provide in 2016 (that’s the most important part), the draft pick he could net the Cubs after 2016 if he was good and went elsewhere, and the chance he could be traded if things really went sideways, I tend to think the answer to the latter question is probably yes.

Ideally, though, I’d assume a team like the Cubs would prefer to get a guy like Samardzija on a reasonable two or three-year deal, though if you’re Samardzija, is that really what you want to do at age 31 in your first crack at free agency? It’s entirely possible that he’ll seek, and get from some team, a much longer deal – five years? – for serious money, which makes the fit for the Cubs a little more difficult to see.

Suffice it to say, I’m intrigued by the options Samardzija presents to the Cubs as a possible target. I think he has the potential to be very good in 2016, and I also think it might be a good situation for him.

Perhaps most importantly, there are ways you could see a Samardzija pursuit going that would not preclude the Cubs from also targeting the elite tier of pitching free agents, or going after cost-controlled younger starters in trade.

*(You may wonder why he wouldn’t just accept the White Sox’s qualifying offer, worth $15.8 million in 2016, in that case; it’s possible he’ll consider it. It’s also possible that he doesn’t believe pitching for the White Sox in 2016, given what happened in 2015, is the best way to improve his value.)

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