As the Dec. 9-12 Winter Meetings near, it's becoming more likely that Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija will be available to the highest bidder. Although he is under team control for two more seasons, maxing out on a trade for him means moving him sooner rather than later.
Nothing has changed in terms of the negotiations. Both sides are amenable to a long-term deal, but they remain far apart in terms. That can change at any moment, but only if one side changes its mind. Otherwise, Samardzija's career in Chicago will come to a close.
If the popular starter is traded, some will blame the Cubs while others will undoubtedly say Samardzija is asking for too much money. In this situation, the blame might fall on timing more than anything else. This isn't about one side being unreasonable. It's more complicated than that.
Samardzija, who made $2.64 million last season and is arbitration-eligible this year and next, could be a victim of the Cubs' rebuilding efforts more than anything else. He will be 29 in January, and he wants to be on a winning team. That's the elephant in the room. The Cubs want to win as well, but they can't put an exact date on the calendar when that might happen, hence the impasse between the sides.
If the Cubs want to pay Samardzija like he's a free agent now, they may be able to get him to overlook how long the rebuilding effort might take. Or if they can speed up the process, he might be willing to take a hometown discount in exchange for a chance to be part of something special. But Samardzija wants one or the other, and it's hard to blame him.
The irony of wanting Edwin Jackson-type money now is that Samardzija doesn't have to have it now. Unlike Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, who both signed-long term deals the past two years, Samardijza has already made a good bundle (about $17 million) in his career. It means he would have no problem waiting until free agency after the 2015 season to sign a big contract. It's a risk, but obviously it's one he's willing to take. So if he's going to toil for the Cubs while they go through a no-sure-thing rebuilding plan, the Cubs are going to have to pay for it.
Samardzija played big-time football at Notre Dame and then joined a successful Cubs team in 2008, just as they were winning the second of back-to-back division titles. Then came the fall-off in the standings and a new regime with a strip-it-down and build-it-back up strategy. But no longer is Samardzija a middle reliever. Now a starter, he's a budding star nearing 30, his prime. Taking a team-friendly deal with a flickering light at the end of the tunnel doesn't sound too appetizing.
But can you blame the Cubs? Samardzija hasn't proven he's the next Clayton Kershaw who must be kept at all costs. The Cubs got team-friendly deals in Castro and Rizzo, and there's a good chance they'll get one in Travis Wood when the time comes. They'll be forced to pay players when free agency forces them to (see Jackson for evidence).
It's not unreasonable for them to offer a deal to Samardzija like the one that was rumored last offseason -- $30 million for five years. Samardzija would get paid now with some security while giving up some money as he heads toward his free-agent years. It's the normal course of business for arbitration-eligible players the team wants to keep. But that's under normal circumstances. These aren't. Not with a pitcher approaching 30 -- albeit with plenty of life in his arm considering his late commitment to baseball -- who desperately wants to pitch for a winner.
Samardzija didn't dominate in 2013 with a 4.34 ERA but as one scout put it recently, "I'd like to see Samardzija pitch for a contender."
He's already known as a pitcher who rises to the occasion, but there aren't many of those on a rebuilding club. And according to ESPN Stats and Information, the Cubs scored zero runs while he was in the game in nine of his 33 starts last season. That's demoralizing. He and Wood are right behind Jackson for most "tough-luck losses" (defined as losing while throwing a quality start) over the past two seasons. It's a good reason why their win/loss record shouldn't be used if those two players end up in arbitration. It's just not fair pitching on this Cubs team right now.
The bottom line is if the Cubs want to keep Samardzija they have to treat him like he's a free agent now and overpay him. Even if the Cubs had money to spend, that's undoubtedly what they would have to do to get a front-line player to join them right now.
If the money is out there, players are going to choose a winner over a rebuilder. The Cubs aren't wrong to stick to their guns and neither is Samardzija. It just means he'll probably be pitching elsewhere in 2014.