Samardzija maturity boon to him and Cubs

Jeff Samardzija went seven innings in the Cubs' loss Monday, allowing no runs on five hits. AP Photo/Gene Puskar

PITTSBURGH -- Already the question is being asked.

If Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija continues to pitch the way he did Monday on Opening Day, is it likely the team extends him a contract offer he can’t refuse, or does the performance just raise his trade value?

Barring a major change in philosophy by the Cubs, the latter is still the more likely scenario. Other teams might view Samardzija as an ace and pay him accordingly, but it’s still doubtful the Cubs will change their minds. Instead, they might finally be able to get the package they want for the right-hander, who threw seven shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the eventual 1-0 loss.

It looked and sounded like a more mature Samardzija after he threw just 89 pitches. The key, he said, was pitching to contact instead of trying to blow everyone away.

“That’s what we’re looking for,” Samardzija said about his pitch count. “Obviously we’re going to take a hit on strikeouts, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is keeping the pitch count down and getting your offense back in the dugout. That’s what we’re going to go for this year, attack zone, make smart pitches and go for the strikeout when we need it.”

That’s probably not something he would have said in 2012, his first year as a starter. Would the old Samardzija ever turn down a strikeout? He had only three Monday -- and that’s a good thing.

“When I need those extra 20 pitches in some games we’ll be able to reach down and get those,” he said.

By contrast, Francisco Liriano of the Pirates struck out 10 Cubs, but made it through only six innings while throwing 104 pitches. Samardzija’s team lost the game, but he won the efficiency battle.

“He was locating down,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He stayed down in the zone.”

Winning the game is more important, of course, but Samardzija can do only so much. Teams don’t generally change their minds on 29-year-old players due to a couple good months, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The Cubs would have to open the checkbook to the tune of nearly $100 million for a multi-year deal, which is what Samardzija believes he would get in free agency after the 2015 season.

General manger Jed Hoyer was asked Monday if there would be in-season discussions with Samardzija’s camp.

“There may very well be,” he responded. “Hopefully, if there are, no one will know about it. We’re just excited he started Opening Day.”

Think of the haul the Cubs got for Matt Garza last season. He was only healthy and effective for a few starts before being dealt to Texas for four good players, including Mike Olt and C.J. Edwards. If Samardzija can pitch like that for the whole first half, the Cubs might be able to pry a No. 1 prospect from a desperate team -- perhaps Atlanta or maybe Arizona.

Right now, that’s still the path Samardzija is on unless the Cubs change their minds. After watching him dominate Monday, they might want to start thinking about it.