The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
As we continue our journey into the second tier of the free agent starting pitchers market, we come across a familiar face in Jeff Samardzija. The former Cubs draftee, minor leaguer, reliever and starting pitcher was traded to the Chicago White Sox about a year ago after being traded to the Oakland Athletics in the mid-2014 deal that brought Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to the Cubs.
Before dealing him to the A’s, though, the Cubs had reportedly offered Samardzija a five-year $85M deal, which he declined, deciding instead to bet on himself in 2015. Unfortunately, that gamble did not work out, and Samardzija might struggle to match the offer the Cubs put on the table two seasons ago. So how bad was the season and was it entirely Samardzija’s fault? Let’s dive in.
As you can see in the chart above, Samardzija had a 4.96 ERA, which was good for third worst in baseball among qualified starters (interestingly, former Cub target Rick Porcello had the fourth worst ERA (4.92)). His FIP (4.23) was eighteenth worst and his xFIP was thirteenth worst. It just wasn’t a good season for Samardzija and given his short starting history, I expect this year to weigh heavily on his upcoming contract (more on that in a bit).
Given how egregiously bad his 2015 season was, your first inclination might be to examine what things occurred out of his control and see if there is reason for optimism. Unfortunately, those stats don’t explain away as much as you might like.
For example, Samardzija’s BABIP in 2015 (.303) is pretty moderate on its own, and is relatively in line with his career BABIP (.293) before 2015. Also, his HR/FB% last season (10.8%) was exactly the same as it has been throughout his career. His LOB% in 2015 (67.2%) was pretty low, to be sure, but he has generally had a pretty low rate (71.6%). There are other things out of his control, but the usual suspects (BABIP, HR/FB% and LOB%) aren’t particularly helpful. He was able to throw over 200 innings for the third straight season, which will not go overlooked, but his peripherals might sink him.
Indeed, as you might able to tell from his FIP and xFIP, his peripherals were quite poor in 2015. His ground ball rate was just 39.0%, which is well below his 46.1% career mark before that.
Additionally, and more disturbingly, Samarzija’s strikeout rate (17.9%) took a nose dive in 2015. Before last season, his strikeout rate was a healthy 22.4% and if you limit that figure to just the three years he’s been a full time starter (2012-2014), that rate goes up to 23.6%. If you can’t get ground balls and you can’t strike batters out, you’re going to run into a lot of trouble.
Performance before 2015
Before 2015, though, Samardzija did experience success with the Cubs, and he has always been able to stay on the mound. Becoming a full-time starter in 2012, Samardzija threw 174.2 innings over 28 starts. But after that, he eclipsed the 200 inning mark three years in a row – 2013 (213.2), 2014 (219.2) and 2015 (214.0). Interestingly, that may have ultimately worked to his detriment, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
In his three seasons as a starter before 2015, his strikeout rate was a healthy 23.6%, his walk rate was a solid/manageable 7.0% and he had a 3.70 ERA with better peripherals (3.50 FIP, 3.29 xFIP).
His ground ball rate during that stretch was an exceptional 47.9% and he wasn’t getting any unusual help from his BABIP (.298), LOB% (72.5%) or HR/FB% (12.2), which were all very normal. To be honest, before last season, Jeff Samardzija was a pretty good starting pitcher, and I would have bet on him to continue his breakout in 2015.
I say continue his breakout, because his 2014 was even better than the rest (remember that performance was how the Cubs were able to obtain one of the best young prospects in baseball in Addison Russell). In 2014, Samardzija had a 2.99/3.20/3.07 ERA/FIP/xFIP. His ground ball rate was even better (50.2%), he was striking guys out (23.0%) and was rarely giving free passes (4.9%). The 2015 season, then, was pretty unusual, but it wasn’t necessarily fluky.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond.
Before we dive into Samardzija’s projections for 2016 and beyond, I want to touch back in on his ability to throw so many innings over the past few years. It is well-documented that Jeff Samardzija is a pretty competitive guy and dislikes being taken out of the game, perhaps more than most (think about how difficult it must have been to throw 214 innings in a year where he had a near 5.00 ERA).
It’s very possible, though, that staying in the game too long in 2015 is what ultimately led to his downfall. We know that, for example, the more times a pitcher works his way through a lineup, the more likely he is to get lit up by the opposing batters. Indeed, in 2015, Samardzija had a 2.23 ERA in innings 1-3 (420 PAs), a 4.93 ERA in innings 4-6 (369 PAs) and a 5.50 ERA in innings 7-9 (121 PAs). While the trend is true for any pitcher, Samardzija seemed to be especially bit by the “third time through” bug. There are also some pitch mix and sequencing questions about how the White Sox were using Samardzija last year, which Brett discussed this past weekend.
That brings me to projections, then, because I think – with the right management and player buy in – Samardzija can experience more success than he’s otherwise projected to just by making his performances more efficient/having a shorter hook. (Indeed, there hasn’t been any drop off in velocity, just yet, so there isn’t any need to worry there.)
For what it’s worth, Steamer projects a much better season out of Samardzija in 2016 – 3.85 ERA (3.88 FIP), 2.7 WAR and 200 innings. Those seem like pretty obtainable goals, and would represent a pretty nice bounce back, but are they something the Cubs – or any other team – will be willing to pay a pretty penny for?
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Projecting Samardzija’s next contract isn’t an entirely easy thing to do, as there isn’t a ton of consensus around the total amount or years. Ken Davidoff (New York Post) thinks he’ll end up with three years and $50M. Dave Cameron (Fangraphs) thinks there will be enough interest for the big righty to get five years and $75M, while Tim Dierkes (MLBTR) thinks Samardzija will just about match the Cubs offer he turned down with a five year $80M deal.
All three of those sources think he ultimately winds up with the Yankees, which seems plausible. For now, there’s word that the Cubs will be meeting, or have already met, with his agents soon to perform their due diligence.
There aren’t any injury concerns that come to mind. Not only has he been a healthy pitcher throughout his entire career, he has now established a track record of large inning counts. Additionally, because he was converted into a starter later in his career, and because he split time between football and baseball in college, he has pretty low mileage on his arm for a 30-year-old starter. There are reasons not to want Jeff Samardzija, but health is not one of them.
One thing to consider is Jeff Samardzija’s previous success when he was paired with the Cubs’ pitching infrastructure. We know that Chris Bosio is talented, but the additional layer is knowing that he has already had success with Samardzija in the past. In fact, Chris Bosio was the pitching coach for all of Samardzija’s years as a starting pitcher with the Cubs (2012-2014).
But remember, familiarity cuts both ways. It’s just as possible that the Cubs front office knows things about Samardzija that pushes them away. It should be interesting.
Samardzija was given a qualifying offer by the White Sox, which he is expected to reject. Thus, signing him will gobble up a draft pick.
Fit For Cubs
There is one other thing to consider when questioning a $50-$80M deal for a Jeff Samardzija: his upside. Given what we know about his success in the very recent past, his competitive and hardworking nature and his velocity maintenance, it isn’t too farfetched to imagine Samardzija breaking back out into the pitcher we know he can be.
So, if the Cubs are inclined to operate in the second tier of the starting pitchers market, then Samardzija might be the guy to go with. Consider Mike Leake – whom I previously profiled here. His contract is just about unanimously expected to fall within the same range as Samardzija’s (5/$85M), as he too is a member of the “second tier” of free agent starting pitchers. While he is a much more consistent pitcher, a little younger, and probably easier to project going forward, Leake doesn’t offer much in terms of upside (i.e., the possibility of pitching like front half of the rotation starter for a full season). Samardzija does. There are risks, to be sure, but there is potential value to be had in a deal with Samardzija. And if you believe he is closer to the guy he was from 2012-2014 (or in his projections), then it might just be an opportunity for a steal.