MIAMI – Jeff Samardzija’s future will continue to dominate the talk around the Cubs, but don’t expect the breakthrough that keeps him on the North Side.
The Cubs have stayed in contact with Samardzija’s camp throughout a process that’s stretched back at least 19 months, and multiple sources say neither side has come close to finding enough common ground.
The most recent round of contract talks, first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, have been described as testing the waters. Once the amateur draft ended in early June, it became a natural checkpoint, with six weeks now remaining until the July 31 deadline. It’s more covering all the bases than putting on the full-court press.
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Theo Epstein’s front office does its due diligence, even checking in with Matt Garza’s camp last summer before engineering a deal with the Texas Rangers. After getting his four-year, $52 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, Garza privately told Samardzija the same message he sent through the media: Pitch your way out of there.
The Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels were among the teams that had representatives at Samardzija’s start on Tuesday night at Marlins Park. Miami utility guy Jeff Baker played with Samardzija for parts of four seasons, watching a guy fighting for his career in 2009 finally beginning to blossom as a starter in 2012.
“Now he’s an ace,” Baker said. “He can go out there and dominate the game. If he’s on his game, you know you’re going to be lucky to scratch out a run or two and that’s what baseball’s about. You get two or three losses in a row, you can throw your ace out there and stop it and build some momentum.
“He does a lot of things from taking the load off the bullpen by going deep into games. And then that’s not even talking about his leadership qualities and the way he’s developed up to now. I mean, he’s kind of got the game by the nuts.”
Market value is the fancier way to say it. While the Cubs used the Matt Harrison extension with the Rangers as a reference point last year (five years, $55 million), Samardzija has since crossed over into 200-innings/200-strikeouts territory and pitched like an All-Star this season.
Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million extension with the Cincinnati Reds changed the equation in spring training. Even if all the numbers don’t match up between the two pitchers, the meter will keep running. Samardzija is only getting closer to free agency, knowing TV money is flooding what’s becoming a $9 billion industry.
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“No talks ever ended, no talks were ever re-opened,” Epstein told WSCR-AM 670. “It was just a nice dialogue where we’re trying to do the best thing for the organization and for Jeff, whatever form that may take. We’re huge Jeff Samardzija fans, and proud of what he’s accomplished so far, and think he’s got great days ahead.”
Both sides have questions about what’s a realistic timeline for the Cubs to contend, given all the franchise’s financial limitations and uncertainty surrounding the Wrigley Field renovation and the next TV deals. And while Samardzija is a 6-foot-5, 225-pound monster, he’s also going to be 30 years old next season and no pitcher is invincible.
Samardzija is a Northwest Indiana guy and the longest-tenured player on the team, but his next big game will almost certainly be in a different uniform, with the Cubs hoping to make another pitch when he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. There would be no doubts about whether or not he could deal with big-contract pressure or handle playing inside the Wrigleyville fishbowl.
“The environment there is tough,” Baker said, “because obviously you have fans that are really passionate and you also have the losing for however many years it is now. And if you don’t have basically the attitude of, ‘I’m a bad dude,’ you’re not going to get it from anywhere else. No one else is going to instill that in you. (Jeff’s) confidence never wavered.
“The ups and the downs, or when he’s in the bullpen and kind of getting jerked around from starting to relieving, back to Iowa, back and forth, he never changed that attitude of: ‘Hey, I’ve got something to prove and I’m going to be this.’ He’s persevered through it. He’s never lost that, and I think that’s part of the reason why you see him having the success he does now.”