Jeff Samardzija doesn’t have a Twitter account and he doesn’t check MLBTradeRumors.com, but he knows his name has been thrown all over the Internet.
The questions will come up when the Samardzija family gathers on Christmas Day in Valparaiso, Ind. The same way Cubs fans want to know: When are you getting traded?
This situation is becoming a flashpoint for the Theo Epstein administration and an organization that’s now being run like a small-market business. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but returning home to Chicago for the holidays reinforces Samardzija’s hope that something can be worked out with the Cubs.
“This is strictly just a feel, (but) I don’t think it’s as dire as what it’s all being made out to be,” Samardzija said. “I understand things need to be written and stories need to be put on paper. But I think if you look at the whole picture, it’s been pretty mild with everything that’s going on.
“They’re listening and that’s what any team would do on any player. I just feel like there’s still that common ground of what we both want to do.”
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Samardzija sat down for a wide-ranging conversation this week after visiting patients at the downtown Lurie Children’s Hospital. He looked like another dude with his jeans, hoodie, black Nike sneakers and long hair pulled back in a ponytail. But two seasons away from free agency, he’s been getting an education in the game’s economics.
Covering this team, there are times where you wish you had a background in mergers and acquisitions and fluency in capital-gains exposure and debt ratios, trying to unwind the $845 million deal Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. made with the Ricketts family in October 2009. (The sale also included a piece of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.)
The Cubs haven’t exactly made a splash this winter, and they lost another offseason of building in the Wrigley Field renovation, fearing litigation from the rooftops. Samardzija will be caught in the middle if the breakthrough year keeps getting pushed back from 2015 to 2016 to 2017.
“Does everybody want things to happen now?” Samardzija said. “Yeah, (but) you add in city policies and aldermen and this and that when you talk about the renovation. And then you’re talking about the rebuilding, waiting on prospects. There are a lot of different things that come into this timeline that are out of my control.
“But I like to approach all this and keep my head online for the big picture of what we want to do, which is win here and win at Wrigley Field. And that’s that.
“I feel like we’re on the same page with that (and) it has been (amicable). They haven’t been ripping me and I haven’t been ripping them. I think we’re on common ground with how we feel about each other. I just feel like there’s a decision that they need to make about what the plan is and what the future holds.”
The two sides have different interpretations of market value for an Opening Day starter who will turn 29 next month – but has less mileage on his right arm because of his Notre Dame football background.
Samardzija believes he’s just scratching the surface with the 214 strikeouts he put up in 213.2 innings last season. He knows the price of pitching is skyrocketing. Even back-of-the-rotation guys can command four-year deals and approach eight-figure annual salaries on the open market.
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Epstein’s front office has also made it a policy to not give out no-trade clauses at a time when the Cubs are flipping 40 percent of their rotation at the deadline. Also remember they cut his pay 20 percent when they declined a 2012 option and kept it flat last season by settling on a $2.64 million base salary in his first arbitration-eligible year.
But it’s really not personal – it’s just business.
The Cubs might not view someone with a 17-26 record and a 4.10 ERA the last two seasons as a No. 1 starter. Pouring all those resources into one player might not make sense if the team is years away from contention, especially when you can cash in the asset for multiple young impact players.
“That goes (without saying): My first preference is to win here and be a success here,” Samardzija said. “I know the upside that comes with surviving through this. Just the personal gratification I would get for battling through these few years and then down the road when we’d be looking back on this – (that’s) what really excites me.
“We could sit down as an organization, as a team, (as friends) and talk about: Hey, you remember, ’11, ’12, ’13, when we were (struggling)? That’s the story I want to be telling: Now look where we are and now look who’s smiling.
“The best-case scenario is look at all the money these other teams spend on guys that maybe have gone past their prime and now look at us being young and healthy and everybody can play 162 games. I try and look at it from that point of view of what it can be – and hopefully what it will be.
“My timetable hopefully is a little bit faster than maybe what they have. But that’s my job – to convince them that this timetable needs to be shifted more to the current stages than the future stages.”
Epstein’s front office is unsentimental. But the president of baseball operations believes Samardzija is a frontline guy, the rare starting pitcher who can be a leader in the clubhouse, someone who gets Chicago and embraces the pressures.
Multiple industry sources have predicted the Cubs will let the free-agent market play out – Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are still on the board – and see what happens with the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes before pulling the trigger on any Samardzija deal.
In the meantime, Samardzija has been working out at the new Cubs complex in Mesa, Ariz. It’s not like they’ve locked him out and changed the codes to get into the building.
“Every day, man,” Samardzija said, laughing. “I figure if they need to get ahold of me for something, that’s the best place to be. I can still get in the doors – as of now – and I still get the free coffee. So everything’s all right.”
Samardzija is the longest-tenured player on the team. He felt Wrigleyville rocking when the Cubs won 97 games in 2008 and wants to experience that again. It’s not just getting to October. It’s playing games that matter in July, August and September – and not getting questions about a trade-deadline sell-off as soon as pitchers and catchers report to spring training. His head is telling him one thing while his heart is saying something else.
“The reality is we need to win and we need to win soon,” Samardzija said. “I think the fans are ready for it. I definitely know the players are ready for it. I just think the whole quote-unquote ‘rebuilding’ word gets old. And if it isn’t there already, it’s getting there in a hurry. That’s just the truth of the matter. You can only stretch that word so far.”