PHILADELPHIA – Jeff Samardzija is a homegrown player who’s not afraid of the big-market pressures. He has the 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame to carry 200 innings. There are no medical red flags or negative whispers about his personality/work ethic.
Doesn’t that sound like the kind of guy you’d build around?
“That’s not my call,” Ryne Sandberg said Friday with a laugh, standing in the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park.
The Philadelphia Phillies manager didn’t want to go there and say he’s surprised the Cubs are planning to trade Samardzija. But Sandberg knows how far Samardzija’s come after managing him at Triple-A Iowa in 2010, when things finally started to click for the Notre Dame All-American wide receiver.
“It looks like he’s a quality starter with the attitude, the aggressiveness and the demeanor he has out there,” Sandberg said. “The way that’s he’s pitching the last couple years really speaks for itself.”
The Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays are in the Samardzija sweepstakes, major-league sources said, with the Cubs doing background work and expecting a bidding war that should involve more teams.
The Tampa Bay Rays woke up on Friday as the only American League team more than 4.5 games out in the wild-card race. Combined the National League’s two best teams – the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers – finished 39 games out of first place last season.
Samardzija could become the difference-maker in a pennant race, someone to start Game 1 of a playoff series.
“He’s a bulldog type of a guy,” Sandberg said. “I know that he’s a gamer and he wants the ball. I know that for sure, because I witnessed that during that year in Iowa.”
Lou Piniella refused to break the news to Samardzija when the Cubs sent him down to Des Moines in late April 2010. Piniella felt like the organization had messed too much with Samardzija’s development, fast-tracking him for the 2008 playoff push and then shuttling him back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation. So Larry Rothschild, the pitching coach at the time, had to make the phone call instead of the manager.
Samardzija went 11-3 with a 4.37 ERA in 35 games (15 starts) at Iowa, reworking his delivery, relearning his pitches and restoring his confidence.
“That was a good building year for him,” Sandberg said, pointing to the positive influence of pitching coach Mike Mason and older clubhouse glue guys like Bobby Scales, Micah Hoffpauir and Chris Robinson.
But the idea of Samardzija (2-6, 2.77 ERA) rising to an All-Star level and heading toward a $100 million contract would have sounded crazy at that time.
“What they did in 2010 probably saved my career,” Samardzija recalled last year. “It’s promotion by demotion, essentially. They sent me down, but they did it for the right reasons, to let me just pitch.
“We talked about it (and) realized we should have done this in ’09 and kept me in Triple-A as a starter. But hindsight’s 20/20. You’re always just trying to do what’s best for the team. And if none of that had happened, who knows where I’d be today? Would I still have the same mechanics I had before? A lot of times, you need to be kind of kicked around a little bit to figure out who you are.”
The Phillies are looking in the mirror and will have to make difficult decisions about their future direction. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is getting questions about his job security and a possible fire sale. That could mean breaking up some of the final pieces from the 2008 World Series team, franchise icons like Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
But if the Phillies somehow became buyers and went for broke trying to win in the next year-and-a-half, Samardzija would have to be in the conversation.
“Well, starting pitching’s hard to come by,” Sandberg said. “There will be a lot of teams that would want him.”