Samardzija, trade talk always seem to go hand in hand
By GORDON WITTENMYER Sports reporter March 30, 2014 9:35PM
MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 27: Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija #29 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the spring training game at Cubs Park on February 27, 2014 in Mesa, Arizona (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 469338805
Updated: March 31, 2014 9:45AM
PITTSBURGH — What exactly is Jeff Samardzija?
Who is he? Where’s he headed? What’s his value? To the Cubs? To a contender? Today? Tomorrow?
For now, he’s the Cubs’ Opening Day starter, their de facto ace.
And when he takes the mound Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the countdown starts again in earnest toward the next judgment day on his value: the day he gets traded this summer.
The definition of Samardzija is at the crux of everything related to his short-term status with the club — why the team hasn’t gotten close to a long-term deal with him and why it must consequently deal him before his value falls dramatically after the trade deadline because of decreased club control.
“Obviously, I have my ideas of what I am as a pitcher, but also where I can be, where I can get to,” Samardzija said. “And that’s what I’m striving for, not necessarily where I’m at now, but where I can be.”
That’s the thing.
His power, durability and competitive nature are lauded by people throughout the game, from executives (one called him a “monster in the making”) to opponents (Joey Votto compared his stuff to Stephen Strasburg’s; Matt Cain called him a bulldog and a would-be “asset to anybody that’s in a race”).
But not even Samardzija will tell you he’s a frontline starter as he takes the mound, despite several glimpses during his two years as a starter of big-game pitching.
“A lot of guys get caught up in labeling themselves, and I’m not going to do that,” Samardzija said. “The more positive things guys say about you, great. You always want to hear those good things.
“But when you pitch like a No. 1, it’s obvious. It speaks for itself. Talk is cheap when it comes to things like that. It’s about the actions and going out and proving it.”
The actions have not reached the quality of stuff and the expectations.
Among the 29 other Opening Day starters this year, only one had a higher ERA last year than Samardzija’s 4.34: CC Sabathia, who also has six All-Star selections, a Cy Young Award and 205 wins.
Despite several teams going to backup plans for their opening pitchers because of injuries, 20 of the other 29 have been All-Stars; 17 have received Cy Young votes during their careers.
Samardzija has a lot of believers in the game and a lot of value. When the Cubs shopped Matt Garza last summer, some executives asked for Samardzija instead. And that value wasn’t hurt by the massive contracts signed in baseball just during spring training.
“When you’re talked about, it’s a good thing,” said pitching coach Chris Bosio, who might be the powerful right-hander’s biggest supporter. “Jeff Samardzija throwing 95 and being a double Opening Day guy in only his third year starting, that’s attractive to any club.”
Samardzija knows where he stands. He has been shopped since the end of last season, and trade rumors swirled all spring.
“He can handle it,’’ Bosio said. ‘‘Jeff’s bulletproof as far as that stuff goes.’’
Samardzija admitted this spring that he couldn’t help but think about that sometimes.
“But in the moment, in the season, that’s the furthest thing from your mind,” he said. “It’s more about, ‘What do I need to do to prepare for my next game?’ ”
After proving in 2012 he could be a starter and proving in 2013 he could do it for a full season, this year it’s all about where he can take it.
“I just want to go out and for 32, 33 starts just have no regrets on my outings,” said Samardzija, who said he had a few last year. “The more veteran of a pitcher and the better pitcher you are, the less you let it get away from you and go into that blackout mode where you’re just throwing pitches instead of pitching. For me, that’s the next step.”
Even if the next step after that is out of Chicago.