MESA, Ariz. – The State of Samardzija used to revolve around whether he’d even make the team or if he could make it as a starter or second-guessing his decision out of Notre Dame.
But even before the Cubs gathered for their first official workout for pitchers and catchers at Fitch Park, it had already become clear that Jeff Samardzija is a foundation piece for team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. And that he wants to get paid like a frontline starter.
After a winter that saw the price of pitching skyrocket, Samardzija isn’t going to come out and say it quite like that and make it all about himself. But this is where it’s heading, if he becomes the top-of-the-rotation force the Cubs envision.
The Cubs had put a long-term extension for Samardzija on their offseason agenda – to at least explore the possibility – but by the winter meetings it had become clear that any momentum had stalled.
There was no sense of urgency on either side. Samardzija had already banked millions after choosing the Cubs over the NFL. The Cubs still have two more seasons of club control after avoiding arbitration this year with a $2.64 million salary, plus $125,000 in performance bonuses.
“We both have the same interests in mind,” Samardzija said. “We both want me to be here. We want to be a part of this team for a long time. When we feel that we’re on the same page with that, then we’ll get it done.
“It’s early right now. I still haven’t proven myself to where I want to be as a player. I was happy with last year, but I definitely don’t want to just stay there. I want to improve and get better and I think the more I show them that, then the more comfortable they’ll be with getting a deal done.
“It’s not even close to the front of the burner right now. It is so far on the back, it’s really not even an issue to tell you the truth. The fact that (we) have a common ground – (that) feels good.”
Samardzija wouldn’t be bothered if the two sides negotiated during the season, though he hadn’t heard any recent updates. He’s in a different place than Starlin Castro, who last summer gave a discount on his extension, which could be worth up to $76 million.
“I’d rather have some more concrete stats and some concrete evidence,” Samardzija said. “Then, obviously, we’ll know better (about) the future. I’m a healthy dude, knock on wood, and I work hard. I just want to put as much on my side of the court as possible. That’s really all there is to it.”
Samardzija went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA in 28 starts before being shut down last September, when it looked like he was really figuring things out and profiling like a frontline pitcher.
Samardzija posted a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break. He has the frame (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) to carry 200 innings and the raw stuff to average 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. His fastball averaged 95 mph, trailing only Stephen Strasburg (95.7) and David Price (95.5) among pitchers with 100-plus innings, according to the online database at FanGraphs.
If it seems like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, well, just listen to manager Dale Sveum.
“No doubt, I think we have a No. 1 guy,” Sveum said. “Going into this year, there are no baby gloves on him. There’s no restraints, nothing we have to watch: Is he going to make the team as a starter? There are so many (questions that he’s answered). That stuff and that durability through nine innings, the ability to get to 120, 125 pitches is what you want in a No. 1 starter.”
Samardzija is so sure of himself, so confident in his game, so comfortable in front of the microphones, and that should give the clubhouse a bounce.
After spending several years on the ropes, fighting for his baseball career, Samardzija promises that he’s isn’t going to get fat and happy or lose his edge.
“I never understood how people aren’t driven to do well in this game,” Samardzija said. “The concept just doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s just too much of an upside to winning and winning in Chicago and having fun (to) not want that. I’m going to stay hungry my whole career.”