The case to keep Jeff Samardzija

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For the first time since the rebuilding process began, Chicago Cubs team President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have a decision to make – if it hasn’t been made already – on a core player.

Make no mistake, as the winter meetings commence in Orlando, Fla., there is no bigger issue currently confronting the rebuilding process than what the Cubs will do with pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Unless the Cubs shock the baseball world, whoever else they sign or trade for this offseason probably won’t be part of the long-term future. This isn’t the year for those kinds of additions, unless they are very youthful ones. Figuring out Samardzija’s fate is more important than anything else the Cubs do.

Until now, the front office has been slowly adding and, in some cases, locking up core players. Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have long-term deals. Catcher Welington Castillo is now part of that group, as is pitcher Travis Wood. So is Samardzija. But Samardzija might be days away from being an ex-Cub. If not days, then he’s likely no more than a few months away from being traded.

As has been well documented, the sides are far apart on a long-term deal for the arbitration-eligible right-hander who will become a free agent after the 2015 season. Basically, he wants to be paid like he’s a free agent now to keep him from becoming one in two years. Should the Cubs ante up?

The short answer is yes.

The Cubs rebuild is going to take long enough. Trading a core player like Samardijza means he has to be replaced. If the Cubs do that with youth, then there is no guarantee or timeline. If they do it through free agency, then the Cubs are going to have to spend some money anyway. Why not do it on a guy they like, who’s a leader and hopefully has his best days ahead of him? Yes, they might have to spend it before they want to, but that’s sometimes the price you pay for a long, rebuilding process in order to keep a few players you like.

Based on last season, Samardzija is an average No. 2 pitcher or a very good No. 3. But there’s room for improvement, and everyone knows it. It’s not a stretch to believe Samardzija is a better pitcher throwing with a little more adrenaline for a contending team. The Cubs hope to be one in the coming years.

Right now, if he was on the open market, Samardzija probably commands the going rate of $10-14 million per season. If Phil Hughes can get $8 million a year with a 4-14 record and 5.19 ERA, then Samardzija certainly deserves more with his 4.34 ERA. Samardzija is big, strong, healthy and now has 200 innings pitched in a season under his belt.

Make no mistake, he’s nowhere near an ace based on last season, but he’s reliable and has shown ace stuff at times. Five years at $60 million has a nice ring to it, but it sounds like Samardzija wants more. The Cubs are probably getting the right value in Years 3-5. It’s in Years 1 and 2 that they’d be overpaying him, as he’s still arbitration eligible.

But there are plenty of ways to internally justify paying him, even if you have to go as high as $70-75 million. First off, unlike most other players in similar arbitration positions, Samardzija isn’t as desperate for that first big payday as Castro and Rizzo probably were. You’re just not going to get a team-friendly deal from him. He’s willing to wait for free agency, so knowing that means accepting that. Second, the whole idea of building your core to win means needing to keep that core together. Getting rid of him means replacing him, and that’s going to cost assets or money or time. Or maybe all three.

Here’s one thing the Cubs can insist on: Samardzija doesn’t get a no-trade clause. If the rebuilding process stalls and Samardzija is still pitching alright, he can be moved in a year or two.

There are other ways to justify it, as well. It doesn’t sound like Epstein or Hoyer are into making marketing statements, or statements of any kind, but at this point in the rebuilding process it wouldn’t hurt to tell the world, "Hey, we’re serious about this and we’ll pay one of our own." Samardzija is the leader everyone talks about and so desperately wants to win. The intangibles are there. In return, he needs to be a better pitcher, and you have to truly believe he will be as the team gets better. He needs the action of a contender.

Here’s another, much riskier idea if the Cubs don’t want to overpay him for 2014 and 2015: let him play out these next two years on one-year contracts. If the Cubs are ready to win by 2016 -- as they hope they will be -- then they can revisit locking up Samardzija. It’s a risk, but if he really wants to win in Chicago and the Cubs are on the verge of some special things happening, then it might be a risk worth taking. The Cubs can extend a qualifying offer to him so that if he bolts they get a draft pick. At least that erases the biggest fear of losing him for nothing. And remember, with a qualifying offer comes less offers from other teams that don’t want to lose a pick. He’ll still be bid on, but maybe the Cubs can convince him to stay, though it will undoubtedly take big bucks. But remember, they’re “saving” on him over these next two years. It’s not the best course of action by any means, but it is an option. Or if the writing is on the wall by July, 2015, they can trade him then. Yes, they’ll get less of a haul then they would now, but look at what the Cubs got for Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman these last couple of years. It’s not bad. At some point, the Cubs are going to have to roll the dice. If there is supposedly money for Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, then there should be some for Samardzija.

The Cubs might be worried about the precedent it sets as a guy like Wood is one year behind Samardijza in the process. He might be next to come calling for big bucks. The difference is he’s made about $1.45 million in his career while Samardzija has $17.5 million in the bank. Would a threat by Wood to wait until free agency be real? No. He’ll sign like Rizzo and Castro did.

Samardzija is unique and should be paid like it. But only if The Cubs believe he will be better -- and maybe they don’t. The status quo isn’t good enough for him. Not at those contract terms.

Roll the dice. Sign Samardzija.