Cubs’ RHP pitcher Jeff Samardzija has been the subject of incessant rumors that he will be traded this season if he does not accept the Cubs’ multi-year contract extension, reportedly between five and six years and $60 and $70 million.
There is absolutely no reason to extend Samardzija at this juncture after just two years of uneven results in the starting rotation; and, similarly, there is no need to trade him, as he is not eligible to become a free agent until after the 2015 season.
Instead, the Cubs should use the 2014 season to continue to evaluate Samardzija to avoid a hasty decision to compensate him as a core member of the team’s rotation or cast him aside in a trade that the Cubs may regret.
After four inconsistent seasons of pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen between 2008 and 2011, the Theo Epstein regime converted Samardzija into a full-time starter in 2012. In 28 starts covering 174.2 innings, he produced a 9-13 record, 3.81 ERA and 1.219 WHIP. Samardzija was placed on an innings limit and had his season aborted in September.
Last year, in his first full season as a starter, he regressed. In 33 starts covering 213.2 innings, Samardzija’s ERA spiked to 4.34 and WHIP to 1.348. His record was 8-13.
With Samardzija, durability is not the primary concern; performance is. The average ERA and WHIP among starting MLB pitchers last season were 4.01 and 1.320, respectively. Samardzija’s ERA and WHIP exceeded these averages.
It is presumptuous to reward a pitcher with a megadeal who has never completed a full season with an ERA or WHIP below the league average for a starting pitcher.
Baseball is replete with examples of pitchers who were given multi-year contracts during their arbitration years and in some instances before they were arbitration eligible based on small but impressive sample sizes who proved their teams’ decisions premature and reckless.
Prior to the 2009 season, the Colorado Rockies signed starting RHP Ubaldo Jiminez to a four-year contract with club options for 2015 and 2016 after he had pitched only one full season for the Rockies (he was under club control for five more years). After a dominant 2010 campaign, the flamethrower’s performance diminished precipitously and he was traded to the Cleveland Indians, for whom he had a 4.45 ERA and 1.467 WHIP over three seasons.
Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona), with less than two years of big league service time, signed a four-year contract prior to the 2008 season with the Cleveland Indians. Despite the 19-8 record, 3.06 ERA and 1.209 WHIP in 2007 that earned Hernandez the multi-year deal, he finished his Indians’ career in 2012 with an ERA of 4.64, a WHIP of 1.429 and a record of 53-69.
When a team makes a correct assessment based on a limited sample size in rewarding a pitcher with a long term deal that buys out his arbitration, and even some of his free agency, years, it can save a lot more money than by waiting until the pitcher has produced several successful seasons before engaging him in long term contract talks. But unlike with position players, the risk is always greater with pitchers when making projections from small sample sizes like Samardzija’s.
Moreover, injury, particularly for a pitcher who has only once eclipsed 200 innings and pitched one full season as a starter, needs to be factored into the equation too. Prior to the 2010 season, the Oakland Athletics signed LHP Brett Anderson, with only one year of major league experience on his resume, to a five-year, $18 million contract with a team option for 2015. Injuries limited one of the Athletics’ top prospects to 59 games (54 starts) over the next four seasons before he was traded to the Rockies this offseason.
In 2010, the Miami Marlins signed RHP Josh Johnson to a four-year, $39 million contract two years before he was due to become a free agent (the identical situation as Samardzija’s). Over the next four seasons, injuries limited the once-promising Johnson to an average of 21 starts, including a disastrous season with the Toronto Blue Jays, to whom he was traded before last year.
So if it is premature to extend Samardzija because of performance or injury concerns, should the Cubs actively seek to trade him this season? Absolutely not.
Samardzija, the owner of an enviable pitching arsenal, has the ability to become a top of the rotation mainstay on a winning team. He throws a four-seam fastball between 94 and 99 MPH; a two-seam fastball between 93 and 96; a cut fastball between 90-93; a slider between 82-85; and a split-finger fastball between 85-87. He also plays with the laser-like intensity that can elevate the performance of his teammates.
The Cubs need to exercise patience and use 2014 as a proving ground for Samardzija to see if he merits the extension that we believe the Cubs are offering him prematurely. Can he eclipse 200 innings without injury for the second consecutive season? Can he lower his ERA and WHIP well below league averages for starting pitchers? Can he avoid the kind of prolonged slumps that have plagued his first two seasons as a starter? If his performance answers all of these questions in the affirmative, then we would feel much more comfortable that the injury and performance-regression risks associated with a long term contract to a pitcher with a limited sample size would have been mitigated.
Finally, if Smardzija were to fail in a make or break audition season, the idea that the Cubs cannot get quality trade value for him next offseason, or even at the 2015 trade deadline in his free agent year, cuts against successful deadline deals the Cubs made with pitchers in their contract years the last two seasons when they parted with Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Matt Garza.
Thus, the Cubs should neither trade Samardzija or sign him to a long term extension this season unless he agrees to a bargain basement discount or another team offers the Cubs an irresistible booty of top flight prospects. Short of those developments, the Cubs should press the pause button and base their future course of action on how Jeff Samardzija performs this season.Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks