Ideally, Jeff Samardzija would perform at the renovated Wrigley Field and see his name in lights on the marquee in October.
That would play well back home in Valparaiso, Ind. It would be the reward for sticking through the long rebuilding project. He would become a leader in the new clubhouse, armed with years of experience handling the Chicago market and rolling his eyes at all those Cubbie Occurrences.
But if the Cubs can’t sign Samardzija to a long-term extension now, then it’s hard to picture any team locking him up before he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. That’s one of many variables as Theo Epstein’s front office looks at 2014 and weighs the potential returns for their Opening Day starter.
“It would be a very tough sign, but obviously anything’s possible,” Samardzija said during a recent interview, while visiting Chicago over the Christmas break. “Until that happens, I can’t really speak on what would I do. The odds are very slim that I would (sign a long-term deal if I got traded). For any professional player two years out of free agency, the odds they sign a deal are pretty slim (in that situation).”
It’s a hypothetical question Samardzija hopes he doesn’t have to answer, because his first choice would be winning in Chicago. The sense is the Cubs will let the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes play out – and wait for top free-agent pitchers Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez to sign – before making a move.
There are less than six weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., where Samardzija has been working out at the team’s new facility, trying to ignore the trade rumors that once surrounded ex-teammates Garza, Ryan Dempster and Alfonso Soriano.
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“It’s out of my hands,” Samardzija said. “It just kind of all comes (down to the organization) and when they feel like their timeframe matches up with the veteran talent they have on the team.
“There’s a common interest, but that common interest only carries so much weight with the future plan that they (have). Obviously, I’m trying to pitch my side of things and my worth and what I feel like I can bring to this team and this organization in the future. But that’s all contingent upon what their plan is and how they see the future ironing out.”
Of course, it’s about the money. It’s always about the money. But it’s not just showing him the money. It’s seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“The money is there as long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” Samardzija said. “I just want to win. That’s really all there is to it. And that can be taken a lot of ways: ‘World Series this, World Series that.’ Yeah, but, I mean, competing in July, August, September is what it’s all about.
“It’s the games (where) you’re watching the ticker. You’re watching those half-game changes in the division, in the wild card. Now that’s exciting. Playing spoiler gets old after awhile.”
No, Samardzija isn’t excited about the idea of another summer sell-off, or getting questions about the trade deadline before the first Cactus League game. But then again he doesn’t have the luxury of dreaming about Baseball America’s top prospects or a new Cubs TV network when it’s 95 degrees in St. Louis and you’re trying to beat the Cardinals.
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“People need to understand frustration from a player’s point of view a little differently,” Samardzija said. “Because you develop relationships with these guys – like (Scott) Feldman or Garza – and you lean on them. You’re really starting to build this relationship with a teammate and then all of a sudden it’s taken from you.”
Samardzija will turn 29 this month and his right arm doesn’t have the same mileage on it after an All-American football career at Notre Dame. But even for a 6-foot-5, 225-pound power pitcher, there are only so many bullets to fire.
The Cubs have lost 197 games across the past two seasons. People who’ve spoken with Epstein say the president of baseball operations sounds conflicted, that he doesn’t necessarily want to trade Samardzija and hopes they can work out a new deal. But there’s also no doubt Epstein wouldn’t hesitate if the Cubs get an offer they can’t refuse.
Samardzija has never won more than nine games in a season and his career ERA is 4.19. But he’s shown he can hit 200 innings and 200 strikeouts and believes he will be a No. 1 starter. After so many ups and downs, he’s the only player left from the 2008 team that won 97 games and had Wrigleyville rocking.
“I remember exactly what that feeling was and how exciting those games were at Wrigley in the playoffs,” Samardzija said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s one of the hardest things about all this is having had a taste of it in this city, in Wrigley. And I don’t want to let that go.
“That’s a big part of it. A big reason I wanted to start – a big reason I wanted to stay here – was to experience those certain situations, playing in October in that stadium. That’s the goal. That’s where we want to be. And hopefully we can get there sooner than later.”