One night at the winter meetings, in the lobby of a Walt Disney World resort, a team official described Jeff Samardzija’s camp and Theo Epstein’s front office playing a game of chicken.
Cubs fans and the Chicago media are watching for the potential crash.
How did it get to this point? It’s not just the dollar amount or one line item that’s held up the negotiations in the 18 months since the extension talks first surfaced in media reports. It’s ego, money and power. It’s a series of organization-wide issues, so many moving pieces that have left no sense of optimism the Cubs and Samardzija will reach a compromise now.
Trade talks are on the back burner. As general manager Jed Hoyer said before a 5-1 loss to the White Sox: “It’s May 6th.” But the expectation is Samardzija – who is 0-3 with a 1.62 ERA – will be pitching for a new team by the July 31 deadline.
Start with the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. and the stadium-renovation limbo that has frustrated both sides and left the Cubs operating like a small-market franchise. Epstein couldn’t have left the Boston Red Sox thinking he’d be running a $75 million team in Year 3 of the Wrigley Field rebuild.
It’s unthinkable for Samardzija, the longest-tenured player on the team who was along for the playoff ride in 2008, when no one would have imagined the Cubs giving away tickets to a Sunday night game against the St. Louis Cardinals, like they did for this week’s appearance on national television.
Big sections of empty green seats framed Wrigley Field late Tuesday night as the White Sox finished off the Cubs. It became a seller’s postcard for an 11-20 team.
Instead of simply enjoying Samardzija’s brilliant all-around performance on Monday night, that one unearned run in nine innings and a career-high 126 pitches became viewed in terms of what it might do to his trade value.
“Teams are still figuring out who’s going to be good, solving their injury issues through their own systems,” Hoyer said. “It takes awhile for people to get past that. Ultimately, there has to be a level of – desperation’s the wrong word – but teams have to have a sense that they can’t fill a hole internally or they can’t make a big enough improvement internally.
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“People don’t usually come to that conclusion in May. It takes a little bit of time and that’s why the trade conversations usually take awhile to get going.”
Some big-market resources would have given Epstein a little more breathing room when discussing an inherently risky, potential nine-figure investment. It also would have created a sense of goodwill for Samardzija, who’s already 29 years old and doesn’t want to play for a last-place team.
Factor in Samardzija’s personality, the uber-confidence that spills onto the negotiating table and the fearlessness that pushed him to go over the middle as an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame. It might take a Hail Mary now.
Take into account the rising tide for a $9 billion industry. It’s not just Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million extension with the Cincinnati Reds or the seven-year, $155 million megadeal the New York Yankees gave Masahiro Tanaka before he ever threw a pitch in the big leagues. It’s Phil Hughes going 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA last season and getting a three-year, $24 million contract from the Minnesota Twins.
Also remember the club policy of not giving out no-trade clauses and the new tradition of dealing away 40 percent of the rotation each summer. Samardzija had a no-trade clause, until the Cubs declined his $3 million for the 2012 season, voiding his contract and cutting his pay as an arbitration-eligible player.
Samardzija also comes from a union family in Northwest Indiana and feels he owes something to the Major League Baseball Players Association.
There’s always the long-shot possibility of a homecoming after the 2015 season, when the Cubs should have more financial flexibility and a wave of young talent led by Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. But if Samardzija’s not giving a hometown discount now, it won’t happen after getting traded or in the middle of a potential bidding war.
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You can also understand the Cubs aren’t writing a Hall of Fame speech for someone with a 29-38 record and a career 3.98 ERA. At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, Samardzija looks like a good bet to stay healthy, but there’s the ticking-time-bomb element for any pitcher, even with someone who didn’t fire as many bullets while concentrating on football.
Cubs management might not appreciate every time Samardzija speaks his mind, but team officials also recognize that he’s a hard worker and the rare starting pitcher able to be a clubhouse leader.
Epstein’s front office – and ex-manager Dale Sveum – should also get credit for listening to Samardzija when he lobbied for the chance to start after a breakout season as a reliever in 2011. A coaching staff led by Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello has delivered the message and played up Samardzija’s strengths.
“He really continues to evolve as a pitcher,” Hoyer said. “That makes a lot of sense. He’s still learning his craft. There have been times in the past where he had a devastating split, a devastating slider. (Monday) night was the first time I had seen him with a two-seamer that was unhittable. That was really fun to watch.”
A source close to Epstein insisted the president of baseball operations doesn’t want to trade Samardzija, but will do what’s necessary. Everyone understands this front office believes no one is untouchable.
It could be the tipping point if a homegrown player in his prime – with no obvious medical issues or character flaws – packs up his stuff at Wrigley Field. Cubs fans might look at this rebuild, from top to bottom, and wonder: What are they in this for?