Jeff Samardzija is speeding toward another career crossroads.
The Notre Dame All-American who chose baseball over football spent parts of three seasons at the Triple-A level before his breakthrough as a Cubs reliever in 2011 – at which point he lobbied a new front office for the chance to start. Samardzija likes to bet on himself.
Now Samardzija is a big name in trade rumors, because he hasn’t jumped at a contract extension and will be a free agent after the 2015 season – at a time when the Cubs are building for 2016 and beyond. He should be trending on Twitter next week when the industry gathers for the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
What are the chances Samardzija will be in the 2014 Opening Day rotation? Theo Epstein sounded cautiously optimistic during Wednesday’s appearance on Comcast SportsNet’s “SportsTalk Live.” The Cubs president is open-minded but also realistic.
“He’s our best pitcher and I’m really bullish on his future,” Epstein said. “He’s a guy that I think can be a difference-making starting pitcher for a long time. Now, obviously, when you’re in (this situation), you have to factor in: How many years of control do you have left? And is there a way to extend that – to make an asset that’s still medium-term (and turn it into) an asset that impacts you for the long-term? The simple, best way to do that is with a contract extension. The second-best way to do that is by trading the player for multiple younger-impact assets.
“But with Jeff, I’m still of the belief that he can be a guy here. He’s got the exact makeup we’re looking for. So if there’s a way to get it done where he can be a Cub for longer than the next two years, we’re going to pursue that. He wants it. We want it.
“Sometimes, those things don’t work out and you take another path. (But) I think it’s very possible (he’s in our 2014 Opening Day rotation).”
It’s also very complicated. Samardzija has already made millions and knows his athletic clock is ticking with his 29th birthday coming up next month. He’s a Chicago guy who grew up in Indiana watching the Cubs and White Sox. He was along for the ride in 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games and turned Wrigleyville into a huge block party. He’s seen the Epstein administration trade away 40 percent of the rotation in back-to-back years.
Samardzija should be in his early-to-mid 30s when the Cubs are putting the finishing touches on this rebuilding project. He’s also an elite athlete with a 6-foot-5, 225-pound build and not as much mileage on his right arm after concentrating on football for so many years.
Is Samardzija an 8-13 pitcher with a 4.34 ERA? Or a 200-innings/200-strikeouts monster? He put up all those numbers last season. And it will be fascinating to watch teams put a price on that.