It seems a remote possibility, but Jeff Samardzija should absolutely be on a roster other than that of the Chicago Cubs by the passing of Wednesday’s non-waiver trade deadline. That’s the one trade I’m eagerly anticipating, crossing my fingers for even, but of all the (admittedly, less outrageous than usual) rumored moves that have caught the fancy of the national baseball gossip men in the days leading up to the deadline, it’s among the least likely.
Samardzija is the Cubs’ best starting pitcher right now. He’s been a bat-missing fiend for about 300 innings now, over the course of the last two seasons, and his control is good enough to make that skill stick. He’s under team control (albeit at what are sure to be escalating prices) for two seasons beyond this one. With the team committed to a rebuilding project that has already claimed Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza, Sean Marshall and Carlos Zambrano (among others) before the ends of their respective terms of team control during the last 20 months, there’s a well-founded (though ultimately counterproductive) fear of getting caught in the hamster wheel of perpetual prospect aggregation. Keeping Samardzija, even extending him if possible, would help mark the progress the club is making toward real contention.
Here’s why that symbolic gesture, and even the real and tangible value of keeping a firmly above-average pitcher around throughout his late 20s, can’t rise to meet the potential near- and long-term utility of a blockbuster trade.
Samardzija is a pitcher, and the Cubs are a year and a half from contention.
That’s really all you need to know.
I can provide additional, salient information. I can tell you, for instance, that Samardzija’s already being a second-year arbitration-eligible player for 2014 means he’s about to get expensive–like, Tim Lincecum expensive. I can note that, although he is the Cubs’ most senior pitcher in terms of innings and the only remnant of the team that last won the NL Central, in 2008, Samardzija is only a year and four months into his tenure as a useful Major-League starter, and that he’s gone through at least two stretches of relative ineffectiveness during that short span.
I can tell you, too, that the 2014 Cubs just aren’t going to be the team that turns the tides. They may be a .500 team on true talent, and that team may over-achieve a bit, but when looking ahead a year to determine whether or not contention is possible, one should be able to identify 18 solid pieces. Eighteen players on the current 40-man roster should be able to slot into their most natural role on a winning team the next season, and should be under either contract or team control for the season in question. Right now, if I’m quite generous, I can give the Cubs 14 of those 18. (They are, so you can stop counting on your fingers and toes: Welington Castillo, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Luis Valbuena, Mike Olt, David DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, James Russell, Arodys Vizcaino and Pedro Strop.) If it appeared that the team was so ready to spend big in free agency as to have a chance of signing, say, both Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury this winter, we could maybe talk, but that’s not the case, and even if it was, I could build a case that the Cubs are missing more than what those two can provide. The list above includes one player slotted in as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen; another as a fifth outfielder; and another as a bench bat on the infield. It’s not a championship roster.
You could counter all that by pointing out that the Cubs are one of the handful of teams most likely to dominate the league beginning in 2015, and you could note that Samardzija will be under team control either way even then. That’s a fair point. Let me rebut it with a story.
It’s a story about the genius who, after being marooned on a desert island, is able to both build a rowboat capable of safely traversing the open ocean and write the manuscript of a generation, a truly classic piece of literature. The genius’s downfall comes when, rather than leaving the manuscript somewhere on the island, safe from the elements and the perils of travel, he stows it in the belly of the boat and sets off.
The genius takes the manuscript along because he’s afraid. He’s afraid the inspiration that brought forth the work is beyond replication. He’s afraid that he won’t be able to find the island again. He’s afraid he won’t be able to make a living upon his reentry into society, and so hoped to use the manuscript as a financial safety net.
The manuscript survives. The genius wraps his only clothes around it, keeping it dry in storms. He keeps it carefully, so that the sun doesn’t fade the homemade ink and the wind doesn’t steal a crucial page. It’s really a marvelous work, and the men who recover it, along with the genius’s wind-whipped, sun-scorched, starved and emaciated body, make a marvelous profit from it. But the genius would have been better off leaving the thing behind, so he could focus his time, energy and resources on survival, or else, using the paper for kindling in a signal fire.
Rebuilding is like crossing the ocean. Pitchers are perishable assets. There are 300 more healthy and effective innings between Jeff Samardzija and the opportunity to really help the Cubs, I mean help a Cubs team that will benefit meaningfully from the help. He will make $12 million before a dollar is spent on a win that has positive net value. He will turn 30 years old.
I simply can’t endorse keeping a pitcher with so little to offer the team for the long term, when even his short-term utility is overwhelmed by the potential value of getting a rich package in return for him, right now. It might be different if, as Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson are, Samardzija were a lock to be in Cubs colors come 2016. That’d mean that a trade would forsake two seasons of possible impact on a team with a chance to win. The calculus would change. But Samardzija is only sure to be around for one good season, if he stays in Chicago, and even that would be an expensive (start the bidding around $10 million; it could go to $15 million) final arbitration-eligible season.
It might also be different if Samardzija were a multitalented, multidimensional pitcher. He’s not. He’s a one-trick pony. Don’t get me wrong: Samardzija’s one trick (missing a lot of opponents’ bats) is the best one a pitcher can possess. The stats are clear on that. Particularly now, when baseball is predicated on power and strikeouts, a solid starting pitcher has to bring the latter to the table so as to mitigate the former, and Samardzija does it.
He lacks finesse, though. He does not have a terrific breaking pitch; it’s his split-change that earns him his money. (Well, that and mid-90s heat.) He does not have above-average command. I’m not even sure his command is average. He can be dazzling and hit his spots like clockwork one outing, and miss the target more often than he approximates it in the next. He’s a smart guy and has worked hard on mechanical and mental approaches that work well for him, but he doesn’t study opposing hitters all that closely and his insistence upon pitching to his own strengths rather than their weaknesses can occasionally bite him.
I don’t mean to tear down Samardzija. Rather, I want to highlight the unpredictability, instability and (often) interchangeability of pitchers. If the front office and on-field staff have performed enough self-evaluation and have created internal feedback loops, they should have the ability to recreate the success they’ve gotten out of Samardzija with some other pitcher. They should also be able, if they’ve done their homework, to find guys who can do basically what Samardzija can do.
The Seattle Mariners have held onto Felix Hernandez despite an interminable slog toward contention, having not reached the postseason since 2001. They felt they needed to sign him to a contract extension they’ll regret, two years out from free agency, this spring. Things seem to be slowly turning for the better for them, as their positional talent catches up to the rotation Hernandez has headed up for nearly a decade. But they’re 50-55, far from the herd in the AL West, and that’s not even the strongest herd in the league, to begin with.
A single starting pitcher can’t have a huge impact on a team’s chances. To call upon Hernandez once more, he made 100 starts from 2010-12. The Mariners went 50-50 in those games. They’re 12-10 this season, in 22 Hernandez starts. Teams are nearly always better off building around homegrown offense.
That brings me to another point: The centerpiece of any Samardzija deal should be a position player, not a pitcher. Hitters are durable goods. They’re more projectable. They have more paths to success. Their aging curves are clearer, which makes paying them and valuing them more efficient, easier processes. They pose less injury risk. and as a result of that and the other advantages listed above, they have higher intrinsic trade value than pitchers.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are among the teams reported to have keen interest. I don’t see an ideal fit. I’d trade Samardzija for Archie Bradley and Stryker Trahan. The former is the best pitching prospect in baseball, by many accounts. The latter is a very young, far-off catching prospect, but one with great promise. I struggle to imagine that Arizona would meet that asking price.
Other permutations of a deal that might have made sense a week ago no longer work: The best positional talent Arizona could offer is Matt Davidson, who plays the corner infield spots, where the Cubs simply do not have a need.
The two teams that pique my interest are the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. If I were the Cubs, I would find a way to put Samardzija in one of those two uniforms this week.
Boston has eight players who can be considered part of the picture. Three are position players at various levels of value and readiness: Jackie Bradley, Jr., Garin Cecchini and Blake Swihart. Bradley has tasted the big leagues, although seeing Triple-A for the rest of this year will do him good. He’s a left-hitting center fielder with great polish on useful, if not overwhelming, raw tools. Cecchini is another lefty bat (no coincidence; for my money, this is the thing the Cubs need to add to their system, and it’s the reason Boston and Pittsburgh excite me as trading partners: They have left-handed hitters to swap.), a third baseman who could become a star or could flatten out as “only” a solid everyday player who could take four different positions if needed. Swihart is a switch-hitting catcher whose star is on the rise; he would be a major get. All three of those players were drafted by the Theo Epstein regime in Boston.
So, too, were Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman and Henry Owens. They, along with Allen Webster, give the Red Sox enough depth to think seriously about trading from it to strengthen a depleted big-league rotation. That Epstein presumably knows at least some of these guys so well is an asset when considering trading for them. He should be able to value them very rationally, and a lot of the posturing and counterproductive back-and-forth that would go on in a lot of negotiations in this vein might be avoidable due to the relationship between the front offices, plus the insight that the former Sox employees still have about those pre-2012 draftees.
It doesn’t really matter how you line those players up. Any combination of three is a solid return for Samardzija.
It does matter how you line up and mix-and-match potential returning assets from the Pittsburgh Pirates. They, too, have a bevy of talented guys who suit the Cubs’ needs. Again, it’s three position players: Gregory Polanco, a very toolsy and potentially superstar outfielder; Alen Hanson, a sharp-hitting, switch-hitting shortstop with speed; and Josh Bell, another switch-hitter, a bit more of a lottery ticket but a potential impact, middle-of-the-order guy.
This time, there are only four pitchers potentially in play, but what they give up to Boston’s buffet in terms of selection, they make up for (and then some) with quality. Jameson Taillon is a top-10 pitching prospect in the game. He might be in the top five. Luis Heredia has gotten, I swear to God, Felix Hernandez comps, although it’s only fair to note that he’s years from making it to the Majors. Tyler Glasnow is to Pittsburgh as C.J. Edwards, whom the Cubs got in the Matt Garza trade, very recently was to the Texas Rangers. Although Glasnow has more acknowledged upside when drafted, he’s taken off even more than Edwards, and looks like a potential star. He’s striking out the whole South Atlantic League. Nick Kingham was a big, projectable arm when the Pirates took him in the fourth round three years ago, and across two levels at age 21 this season, he is making good on the projections. He’s got a strikeout-to-walk ratio north of 4:1, and is now succeeding in Double-A.
I would do Polanco and Kingham for Samardzija. I would do Taillon and Hanson for him. I would do Polanco, Kingham and Heredia for him. I would do Hanson, Bell and Kingham, or Bell, Glasnow and Kingham. I would not do any deal in which Heredia was the only pitcher included. I would not do any deal not including either Polanco, or each of the other two positional guys, unless Taillon were included.
The nice thing about working with Pittsburgh is that the Cubs can throw in something really good if talks stall. Whereas the Red Sox are only in need of one more bullpen arm (and Kevin Gregg is not that guy, to me), the Pirates have their eye on Nate Schierholtz, in addition to Samardzija. If Neal Huntington is willing to give up Polanco or Glasnow, but not both, throwing in Schierholtz (a cheap bat under control through 2014) might grease those skids.
There’s a deal there, is what I’m saying. While Samardzija is more asset than liability, and while I won’t be bitterly disappointed if he is not traded by Wednesday evening, I hope he is, and I hope the return is heavy on positional considerations, and a real sense of where this team is going.
There are other guys on the roster who should be moved. If Schierholtz doesn’t go with Samardzija to Pittsburgh, he could help one of the two teams with which the Cubs have most recently dealt, anyway: the Rangers or Yankees. He’s arbitration-eligible in 2014, but then a free agent, so there’s really no reason not to deal him, under the same competitive-horizon premise I mentioned earlier.
David DeJesus is a similar case. He and Schierholtz form something of a redundancy. Their skills aren’t perfectly aligned or overlapping, but you don’t really need both on a roster. Trading neither would be pernicious neglect. Trading both would require someone to make a strong offer on whoever goes second. Probably one should stay, and the other should go.
Speaking of redundant talent, Luis Valbuena is about to be squeezed out of a job. Not only will Mike Olt take over the third-base duties Valbuena is getting the majority of in the very near future, but by next Opening Day, the Cubs should be able to count on Logan Watkins as a lefty platoon option at second base, and utility man otherwise. Watkins shares Valbuena’s skill set almost perfectly, and will cost about a fifth of what Valbuena might as a second-year arbitration-eligible guy. Kansas City might like Valbuena as a long-term solution to what has been a long-term problem at second base, but the Braves have also let it be known that they’d like to add a lefty bat to their infield.
Kevin Gregg was always going to be the last girl in the bar. I think even the most optimistic Cubs fan never got over-excited about this one. When a flurry of rent-a-relievers moved around on Monday, it became clear that the market for them is tepid, anyway. Gregg will go somewhere, likely not for very much. The best candidates to grab him are, in some order, the Dodgers, Athletics, Pirates and Nationals.
Before the Jose Veras deal closed off the Tigers’ apparent need for a righty arm, I had advocated packaging Gregg with Dioner Navarro and sending him to Detroit. That’s off the table now, but maybe James Russell could go with Navarro, instead. The Tigers have had simply atrocious production from behind the plate this season, especially from Alex Avila. Navarro would be a big boost for them, especially if he continues to acquit himself fine from either side of the plate, the way he has this season. Danny Knobler had Detroit engaging the Giants about Javier Lopez, lefty specialist, after the Veras trade, and happily, Russell has been training into that job this season, after years as more of an inning-plus guy. Russell has already entered more games in which the Cubs had the lead than he did all last season. His average leverage index has leaped by roughly half, and the percentage of plate appearances in which he’s held the platoon advantage over opponents has risen from the low 40s (for each of the last few years) to the mid-50s.
Russell’s market shrank when the Braves landed Scott Downs yesterday. Still, he could appeal to the Diamondbacks, Reds, Indians, Athletics or Nationals. If the Cubs’ intent is to continue to marginalize him and turn him into a LOOGY, I say, trade him for whatever you can get.
There are two guys I think could be movable commodities, but who probably haven’t provided would-be buyers with sufficient information to actually move. Carlos Villanueva’s back-and-forth usage pattern reaffirms his versatility, but doesn’t do much to highlight what he does well, and few good teams have a guy floating freely between long and short relief, with separate rotation stints mixed in. Matt Guerrier appears to be better than he was in Los Angeles at the start of the season, but might be a better guy to float through waivers in August. If nothing else, a team could stake a claim that would get the Cubs out from under a bit of money over the last six weeks.
Gregg. Navarro. Russell. Valbuena. One of Schierholtz and DeJesus. Even removing Samardzija and the fringe guys from the mix, there are five or six players the Cubs should at least shop over the next 36 hours. In a year where buyers outnumber sellers two to one, and in which many sellers seem reticent to actually sell, the Cubs stand out like a neon sign in an ancient bazaar. It’s not just an itchy trigger finger. I have my sights set on a realistic shot at the NL Central title, and if the Cubs front office does, too, the roster is about to look very different.Next post: A Little TOO Quiet: Why Nothing Happened at the Trade Deadline
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