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Inability to sign Jeff Samardzija likely to haunt Cubs

Updated: July 21, 2014 4:09PM



Jeff Samardzija hasn’t even been traded yet, and it’s already the most controversial move the Cubs’ front office will make in nearly three years on the job.

It’s the one with more outrage potential than the Ryan Dempster trade and the one with potential to blow up bigger in their faces than Edwin Jackson’s free-agent signing.

This is the one that puts Theo Epstein on the clock to start showing results — and puts ownership and the business department on the hot seat to start showing the money to the baseball side that was promised when he was hired.

Because failing to sign their ace to a long-term extension is a setback to the rebuilding process in a way that failing to sign Matt Garza can’t touch for its impact. And regardless of the players the Cubs get in return, it’s going to be hard for even the Ivy League front-office guys to rationalize letting this guy go if he winds up pitching somebody else into the playoffs and finishing off an All-Star season.

You’re talking homegrown player. Prototype power-pitching body. Front-of-the-rotation stuff, intelligence and competitiveness. A delivery and history that suggest durability. And the kind of communicator, ambassador and respected clubhouse leader that checks all the so-called intangibles boxes — and potentially adds value to the other contracts on the roster.

“It’ll definitely be different if a guy like Jeff leaves,” veteran pitcher James Russell said. “He’s been one of the staples around here. You just kind of put his face with the Cubs team. It’d be definite culture change.

“It’d be like taking one step forward and 10 steps back.”

Russell echoed sentiments expressed in all corners of the clubhouse in recent weeks — some of which, privately, came with stronger words.

During a week the guys in the clubhouse watched the organization’s most exciting prospect, Kris Bryant, get promoted to Class AAA, one step away from helping their cause, they watched a final, failed effort to sign Samardzija to an extension play out this week.

And all of a sudden, the Cubs, with the fifth-highest revenues in the game, can’t afford to keep their own best players.

Maybe Samardzija can’t keep up his 2.60-ERA, seventh-in-the-league pace this year. Or next. Maybe he’ll slip backward, into some career inconsistency after he’s traded. Maybe he’ll get hurt. Maybe the Cubs will look like geniuses for moving him.

But if he continues anything close to what has been a 2 1/2-year progression since becoming a starter, his market value will be much higher than the latest rejected five-year offer that sources confirm was in the $85 million range.

And one source said that’s why the Cubs increased their offer significantly to that level — after considering what it would take to replace him with a similar quality pitcher from the outside the organization.

Because there’s nobody like him coming from within the system anytime soon.

Who are you going to get to fill the void? Max Scherzer? Jon Lester? Justin Masterson? You got $100 million, or $120 million?

It never had to get this far if the Cubs’ numbers guys had bet on Samardzija even close to as much as he bet on himself.

According to sources, when Samardzija proposed $100 million earlier this year, and the Cubs were nearly $40 million below that, his camp talked about coming down by $20 million.

The Cubs huddled and countered by raising their offer by $500,000.

Samardzija hung up the phone and started pitching.

This was less a money grab from a guy who still drives a used car and has banked most of his millions, than it was a nod to a players union getting increasingly chapped at the proliferation of team-friendly deals that skew market values and make it harder on the next player trying to bargain hard.

“The only reason we’re in the fortunate spot we’re in now is because of the guys that played before us and how they went about their business,” he said.

This is about Samardzija betting on himself. And, maybe, about the Cubs losing the bet.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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