Samardzija thinks big: All-Star Game, World Series, megadeal

Samardzija thinks big: All-Star Game, World Series, megadeal
July 7, 2014, 6:30 pm
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Don’t let the long hair fool you. Sure, Jeff Samardzija likes listening to Led Zeppelin, cracking open a beer after the game and calling everyone “dude” or “man.” 

But the “Shark” nickname definitely fits. Jeffrey Alan Samardzija is his own CEO, someone with a ridiculous amount of self-confidence and an unshakeable belief in his talents.

That begins to explain why Samardzija had such a dizzying Fourth of July weekend, going from the Cubs to the Oakland A’s and getting voted onto a National League All-Star team he can’t pitch for after the blockbuster trade.

It’s a way to understand why Samardzija’s wearing green and gold again, chasing a World Series ring with the “Moneyball” crew and setting the meter at $100 million and counting. 

[MORE: Samardzija picks up win in A's debut]  

Samardzija leveraged his Notre Dame name recognition and a potential NFL career into a $10 million contract and a no-trade clause that infuriated the commissioner’s office and the high-level hawks inside Major League Baseball.

Samardzija demanded the chance to start when the Theo Epstein administration took over at Clark and Addison, and showed no sense of urgency in the two-plus years the two sides discussed a long-term extension.  

“You’re your own brand, for sure,” Samardzija said, “because you don’t have the same situation as anybody else. Although you can use other people’s paths and ideas – and how they got to where they are – yours is going to be different.”

Samardzija had just thrown a bullpen session in the 90-degree heat at Fenway Park and stood shirtless in the middle of the cramped visiting clubhouse. This was roughly 48 hours before the Cubs would trade the longest-tenured guy on the team.  

[RELATED: Samardzija makes All-Star game, can't participate]

“You take bits and pieces from everyone you meet,” Samardzija said. “You kind of form it into your own equation. And on top of that, mix it in with the current status of the game and your team. There’s a lot of factors that go into everything. 

“That’s why it always helps to ultimately have your own goal of what you see yourself doing. It makes it a little easier, because things can get really discombobulated real fast, especially in a baseball locker room.”

The pitch

Apologize would be too strong a word, but after the Cubs GM got fired, Samardzija told Jim Hendry how he wished he could have developed sooner. Maybe things would have been different, maybe not, but Samardzija felt that kind of responsibility on his shoulders.

The entire organization was in limbo during the final weeks of the 2011 season. When asked about his $3 million option for next year, Samardzija said something like: It would be a shame if I won all those games somewhere else.

Which, of course, sounded a little absurd, because Samardzija had only really put together a few pretty good months as a reliever, finally settling into a late-inning role. But teammates respected his swagger, always thinking he should be The Man, even on the way to and from Triple-A Iowa.

[MORE: After trade, Epstein hopes Cubs are no longer 'obvious sellers' next year]

Epstein’s front office declined the option and re-signed Samardzija at a lower salary ($2.64 million). That pay cut opened Samardzija’s eyes and made him look at the big picture. The Cubs viewed this move as the industry’s standard operating procedure, seeing that option simply as protection against a big score in arbitration, a right Samardzija hadn’t earned because he didn’t stick in the big leagues long enough.

That’s just one example of the many shades of gray in the Samardzija standoff. Because around the same time – just before Thanksgiving 2011 – Epstein took a meeting with Samardzija on the same day Dale Sveum got introduced at Wrigley Field as the 52nd manager in franchise history.

The new Cubs listened to Samardzija’s presentation, how he would train for 200 innings. They hired an excellent pitching coach – Chris Bosio – and gave Samardzija exactly what he wanted. 

“The older you get, you start to realize that it is your career,” Samardzija said. “There’s a lot of things that maybe you feel like you can ask for (and) it’s easy to chalk up as out of my control. (But) a lot of times, if you express your emotions, and how you feel about situations, they’re going to listen to you. 

“They’re at least going to give you a shot, and that’s really all you can ask for. You just need to capitalize on it once it happens. For me, I just always had an idea of what I can bring to the team.

“You just need your word to be heard, and hopefully it gets picked up.”

Betting on yourself

Could the Cubs have acted faster and shown Samardzija some more love? Probably, but his Frontline agency also historically likes to push the market for pitchers with guys like Mike Hampton ($121 million), Cliff Lee ($120 million) and A.J. Burnett ($82.5 million).

[WATCH: Samardzija happy to be with A's following with trade]

Did Samardzija want to get paid like a free agent now? Yeah, but you also have to understand he comes from a union family – his dad works at Northern Indiana Public Service Company – and feels a responsibility to the Major League Baseball Players Association. 

That killer instinct on the mound will spill over onto the negotiating table. Samardzija is wired differently than Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who made deals with the Cubs under different circumstances.

“People are taking the security first,” said ex-Cub Jeff Baker, the Miami Marlins utility guy who watched Samardzija’s evolution up close. “But when you have those players that are extremely confident in their abilities – and they have the attitude and the talent to go out there and back it up – it shows a lot. 

“Jeff says: ‘I’ll wait it out, because I believe in myself. I’m going to put up innings and I’m going to be an ace.’ You’re going to get paid handsomely.”

The Cubs and Samardzija’s camp discussed various reference points between 2012 and a check-in after last month’s draft. There was Clay Buchholz, who got about $30 million guaranteed while the Boston Red Sox gained two more option years worth another $26 million. There was the five-year, $55 million deal the Texas Rangers gave Matt Harrison. 

There was a five-year, $86 million concept to test the waters before going full speed ahead with the trade. But Homer Bailey’s six-year, $105 million extension with the Cincinnati Reds had already widened the gap in spring training.

[WATCH: SportsTalk Live discusses blockbuster trade]

“Looking back at it, I feel like it’s fair to say that we were close, just because there was mutual interest,” Epstein said during Saturday’s conference call with reporters. “We’ve always admired Jeff, the way he goes about his business, his talent, his work ethic, what he means in that clubhouse, his competitiveness. 

“He’s somebody that we saw possibly starting playoff games for us at Wrigley Field.”

Prove it

No one knows when the Cubs are going to be playing in October, and both sides grew frustrated with the limitations imposed by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co.   

Combine that with the delays to the Wrigley Field renovation and the uncertainty surrounding the next TV deals – plus Epstein’s policy of not giving out no-trade clauses – and getting this done would have taken a Hail Mary.  

“We did have a desire to keep him,” Epstein said. “Jeff loved the Cubs and loved the fans and loved the city and wanted to be here. In the end, that mutual interest just wasn’t enough. I don’t blame that on anyone. I just think that timing wasn’t necessarily aligned. 

“We missed timing by a year or two, and that’s no one’s fault. There are no hard feelings. We wished Jeff well. We’re proud of what he accomplished here. And we hope that he goes and gets a ring.” 

[ALSO: Epstein bets on Addison Russell, where game is going]  

Could Samardzija come back after the 2015 season? That depends on the hazy competitive timeline at Wrigley Field. He put up a 2.83 ERA in 17 starts for the Cubs and left with a 2-7 record. 

But it’s a long shot worth looking into, because Samardzija checks almost all the boxes with his intangibles, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and a right arm that’s relatively fresh for a 29-year-old.

But Samardzija won’t be giving a hometown discount, and he’s going to see what’s out there. He got a taste on Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum, walking off to a standing ovation during a 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. The best team in baseball has six All-Stars, plus the Samardzija asterisk and ex-Cub Jason Hammel strengthening the rotation. 

“My kind of guys, man,” Samardzija told reporters afterward. “I think any time I’ve ever been broken down – with my personality and everything – my problems were always that I was a little too cocky, and a little bit too emotional and things like that. 

“I look around the locker room and go: Hey, these guys fit me perfectly!” 

[WATCH: Wittenmyer breaks down Cubs-A's deal]

Epstein wanted to make sure this ended on good terms, without a war of words in the media, and felt like the Cubs couldn’t have handled the situation differently. 

Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer can treat players like assets, building the roster through arbitrage, and there’s a cost of doing it that way. But Samardzija also understands it’s a business.

So if Samardzija wants to get paid like Matt Cain or Cole Hamels, then prove it and do what they did for the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. 

Last week at Fenway Park, Samardzija was reminded of old friend Ryan Dempster’s money quote during his no-trade drama: “It’s awesome being the hammer and not the nail.”

“Absolutely,” Samardzija said. “Being the nail is no fun.”