NEW YORK — So which New York tabloid produced the better back page for Thursday’s editions? “ZIP ZIP HOORAY!” and “CLEAN SWEEP” summed up a long, cold day in The Bronx that again spelled out Jeff Samardzija’s future in ALL CAPS.
The New York Post highlighted Masahiro Tanaka, the one pitcher who could’ve jumpstarted the Cubs and accelerated their timeline, while the Daily News focused on pine-tar-free Michael Pineda (“no dirty tricks”).
Like those headline writers, there’s nothing subtle about the roster bulldozing at Clark and Addison, where the Cubs flip veterans to get more prospects and higher draft picks. The Cubs returned home after Wednesday’s double shutout at Yankee Stadium with a 4-10 record that left them stuck in last place in the National League Central.
Samardzija (0-1, 1.29 ERA) will face the Reds (6-9) on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Enjoy it while you can, because it’s almost impossible to see how he’s still on this team by Aug. 1.
As Alfonso Soriano said, win a title in Chicago and “you can be a God in the city.” Samardzija — who became the longest-tenured player on the team when the Cubs traded Soriano to the Yankees last summer — certainly understands all the potential rewards.
It’s a long shot, but maybe the Northwest Indiana guy returns as a conquering hero after the 2015 season, when Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are supposed to be ready for prime time, along with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.
Samardzija should already have some fans in New York, inside the Major League Baseball Players Association’s headquarters near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.
Given the way teams keep locking up young players with long-term extensions, do you feel a responsibility inside the union?
“Without a doubt,” Samardzija said. “I’ve said it before: Personally, numbers and money don’t really drive me. What does drive me is protecting and setting up the players behind me, the future generations, so that I’m not signing any of these crummy early deals for seven or eight years.”
Samardzija has taken crash courses in baseball economics. He thinks the Northwestern football team is onto something, targeting the NCAA and fighting for the right to collectively bargain. His dad, Sam, has been a union guy for 30-something years, working at Northern Indiana Public Service Company.
“When you’re hitting your prime and you’re hitting free agency — like it’s supposed to be done — then that’s the way it sets up for guys behind you,” Samardzija said. “I definitely have a responsibility to the players that are younger than me and approaching arbitration or approaching free agency to keep the numbers where they should be.
“And rising as they should be, in accordance to the economy and the state of the game. That’s more important than anything else — what you owe the players that did it for you and then the players behind you.”
The Cubs have been in a slashing mode ever since Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. formed a highly leveraged partnership with the Ricketts family, a financial unwinding that can be traced back to the 2008 winter meetings in Las Vegas.
That offseason, the Cubs were coming off back-to-back division titles. Chicago was a destination point, not a layover for Tommy John cases looking to reestablish market value and role players hoping to show they can be everyday guys.
Maybe CC Sabathia could have been a finishing piece for a 97-win team that got swept out of the playoffs again. The big lefty helped the Brewers win a wild card by going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts after a midseason trade from the Indians.
“I was open to ideas,” Sabathia said. “My agent did talk to the Cubs. I don’t know how far those talks went. But, yeah, I had interest in going, especially at that time. They still had Derrek Lee. It was a pretty good team.”
That friendship with D-Lee got the Cubs thinking Sabathia might actually prefer to come to the North Side and play for a win-now team.
“We may have had some conversations,” Sabathia said. “It was a long time ago. But I definitely talked to everybody I could — all of my friends who worked with the free-agency process. I looked at everybody.”
In the end, the Cubs were a non-factor. Sabathia signed with the Yankees for seven years and $161 million, re-working his contract in 2011 after a three-season run that saw him win a World Series ring, notch 59 victories and account for more than 700 innings.
The Yankees have the financial flexibility to survive when their 33-year-old investment inevitably declines — Sabathia had a 4.78 ERA last season— but they probably don’t have the prospects to trade for Samardzija now.
Samardzija’s camp will have to keep the Evil Empire in mind, because it’s good for business. (See Tanaka’s seven-year, $155 million megadeal, which blew the Cubs away by one year and $25 million.) There’s also the connection to former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who’s now a special assignment scout with the Yankees.
Samardzija is used to playing with a target on his back after an All-American football career at Notre Dame and his time inside the Wrigley Field fishbowl. He enjoys bantering with the media and speaking his mind.
Maybe Samardzija won’t develop into the No. 1 starter he thinks he should be paid like now. But it won’t be because he’s afraid of the big stage or getting lazy and simply cashing checks. He’s not wired that way.
“If you say you want to be a winner,” Sabathia said, “this is the place to come. You know they do whatever they can every offseason to try to get to the playoffs and put the best team out on the field.”
“SHARK ATTACK” would make a good back page in New York.