MESA, Ariz. — This is Jeff Samardzija’s team. For now.
The longest-tenured guy in the clubhouse knows his days are numbered — unless there’s a dramatic change in negotiations or the Cubs pull off a miracle and contend this summer.
Otherwise, Theo Epstein’s front office is prepared to trade Samardzija by the July 31 deadline, when contending teams should be lining up for a shot at a power pitcher who loves the bright lights.
Samardzija wants to win and get paid like a frontline starter. The Cubs are still looking to collect long-term assets while their Opening Day starter will be a free agent after the 2015 season. Nothing personal.
“It’s tough with the emotional attachment I have to this organization,” Samardzija said Friday at Cubs Park. “A lot of times you just give the benefit of the doubt. That’s just the way it works, because of the way I feel about being here and how bad I want to be here. The more this process goes along, though, the more I realize that it is a business and that attachment only goes so far.”
Samardzija grew up in Northwest Indiana, went to Notre Dame and has an offseason home in Arizona, not far from the team’s new facility, where he’s been working out since December. He was along for the ride as a reliever in 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games, and would ideally be there when Wrigley Field is rocking again.
Seeing Samardzija as a potential building block, the Cubs floated the idea of an extension after his breakthrough season as a starter in 2012. Those talks haven’t created any sense of momentum.
The two sides exchanged 2014 salary numbers on Jan. 17 — $4.4 million vs. $6.2 million — and that again showed the different interpretations of Samardzija’s value. The Cubs lost the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes on Jan. 22, when the Japanese pitcher signed a seven-year, $155 million megadeal with the New York Yankees.
With that Tanaka money freed up, it still took until Feb. 8 to reach a $5.345 million settlement, roughly 48 hours before a scheduled arbitration hearing. Samardzija sounded annoyed when a reporter mentioned the perceived “gap” between his representatives and the front office.
“Well, if there wasn’t a gap, we would have already signed, right?” Samardzija said. “Both sides are justified. It’s not like anyone is asking for some outlandish concept. I understand where they’re coming from, and they understand where I’m coming from. That’s really all there is to say.”
Samardzija sounded resigned to the idea that he will be part of another summer sell-off if the team doesn’t get hot and forces Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to rethink their positions.
“All of it comes down to production,” Samardzija said. “It all comes down to what happens on the field. And I know if I do my part — what I expect of myself and what the team expects of me — then everything else is clear about what the future holds. All I can do is increase my value as much as possible.
“In the end, it’s going to help the organization no matter what. Either it helps the organization by keeping me here and proving to them that I’m that guy, or I increase my value and it helps them get prospects in return.
“All I can do is my job to the fullest and keep being wanted.”
At age 29, Samardzija still isn’t a finished product. Maybe the Cubs don’t want to pay him like an ace after an up-and-down season where he went 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA and 214 strikeouts in 213 2/3 innings. He’s spoken his mind and gotten his side of the story out there, but he won’t be giving play-by-play updates on the negotiations.
“We’re not really going to talk about that,” Samardzija said. “We’re worried about this season. We’re looking to get ready to compete and win some ballgames. We don’t want any distractions, whether it’s with that or with trade talks.
“For me, it’s a no comment. I’m out there getting ready to do my thing. Like I said before: Put no doubt in anyone’s minds about who I am or what I can be for this team.”
Samardzija would be a good leader for all the hyped prospects coming up through the system, someone who gets Chicago and isn’t afraid of the big-market pressures or being a clubhouse spokesman. In that way, he will be missed.