Among List of Cubs Trade Targets, Jeff Samardzija Might Make Most Sense

I don’t feel shame in the name, even if Corey Freedman, my co-host on the Cubs Related podcast, berated me as soon as we finished recording a recent episode.

“Add Samardzija to the list of names you’re not allowed to say,” Corey admonished.

There are lots of names on this list. But whereas I typically joke about the scrappy players for whom I bear perhaps some undue admiration, I’m not joking about wanting Jeff Samardzija back. When the deadline approaches and the hot-hitting Cubs continue to put up runs, Samardzija might make the more sense than other options.

Please let me explain before you flip out close out this post or respond on Twitter. If, that is, you even made it this far after seeing the title. I promise you that you’ll see the light by the time you read the last word of this write-up.

Before we get to Samardzija, though, let’s run through some of the other names that have/will/should come into play as the deadline approaches.

Chris Archer

Perhaps the most intriguing pitcher that has come up in trade rumors is Chris Archer, who, if you might remember, netted Jim Hendry and the Cubs Matt Garza several years ago. Now the top pitcher on Tampa Bay’s squad, Archer owns a career 3.45 FIP and 3.53 ERA. Most impressive about the 28-year-old is an affinity for whiffs, as he has produced north of 10 K/9 each of the past three seasons.

In order to rack up so many whiffs, however, Archer has had to throw a flurry of sliders, and he has peaked at a 46% usage rate this year. Seeing so many sliders naturally gives me anxiety, especially since the young starter already throws in the mid-90’s. I ask myself how long such a repertoire last. And if the injury bug doesn’t bite, how will he adjust once a few ticks on the speedometer drop.

It’s damn near impossible to rely on two pitches for the majority of a career, when, at a moment’s notice — poof! — stuff is gone. Trading several touted prospects and even a major league contributor for the Rays’ best pitcher scares me.

Sonny Gray

Another match that seems too logical for either side to ignore is Sonny Gray, who owns a career 3.61 FIP and 3.42 ERA. While I expressed my concern over Archer’s career trajectory, Gray has already been bitten by the injury bug several times, with the most recent one being a strained lat that delayed the start of his 2017 season.

More serious, though, the 27-year-old only pitched 117 innings last year due to pain in his trapezius and forearm. In the span of nine months, Gray has experienced discomfort in three major links of his kinetic chain. Nevertheless, his stuff is alluring, dazzling scouts with a 93 mph fastball and a buffet of secondary pitches that is sure to satiate any pitching coach: slider (11.1% usage rate), cutter (1.6% usage rate), curve (20.2% usage rate), and change (12.2% usage rate).

The best of his secondary pitches is his slider, which has drawn almost a 25% whiff rate in 2017 (top 97% in MLB). Unlike Archer, Gray can get batters out with his curve (14% whiff rate in 2016, top 74% in MLB) or change (+60% grounder rate).

If he’s healthy, he’s better than Archer. But that’s a very big “if” and he is also going to cost a lot.

Gerrit Cole

I’m not going to dive deep into Cole’s repertoire simply because intradivisional trades in this era seems unlikely. Trading Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez — or really any top prospect — for a pitcher who has experienced consistent elbow pain, like the kind that ended Cole’s season last year, makes me grit my teeth and hold my breath.

Zack Greinke

The former Cy Young winner is going to make at least $34 million per season through 2021. Unless the D-Backs want to eat some of that money, that’s a lot for a pitcher who will turn 34 in October and who just came off of a 4.12 FIP and 4.37 ERA season. Granted, he’s off to a fast start this year with a 3.18 FIP and 2.82 ERA, but the velo has gone down over a mile per hour since his time in Los Angeles, and who knows how his stuff plays out for the next several years.

Jake Odorizzi

Chris Archer’s teammate has been frequently mentioned in trade conversations. In his young career, the 27-year-old Odorizzi sports a 3.70 ERA and 3.97 FIP. The discrepancy between those metrics is due in part to a low strikeout rate (under 8 K/9 last three years) and groundball rates of less than 38% over the previous three seasons that have seen his xFIP average over 4.00 over that time.

Yet we have better information today than we did even two years ago, making xFIP a little more obsolete. Unfortunately for Odorizzi, however, his 2016 4.18 scFIP (statcast FIP based on xStats) was still underwhelming. He simply gives up too many well-struck balls that have been run down by the glove of Kevin Kiermaier.

It looks as if Odorizzi has improved considerably this year, though. Rather than throwing a sinker once every four pitches, he’s scrapped the fastball variation for more four-seamers, cutters, and splitters, which has contributed a 24% whiff rate (20% better than 2016). There’s a lot to like about Odorizzi, but the warning signs are fly balls and a track record of average contact.

Marcus Stroman

If Stroman is made available, you get him. No questions asked. He’s the best option of them all. However, his name hasn’t come up in trade discussions and there’s no reason to think the Jays would part with him.

Insert Jeff Samardzija

There are many reasons why Jeff Samardzija doesn’t make sense. Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, and Chris Archer have nastier stuff. Greinke is not far removed from Cy Young seasons either. Odorizzi seems to be on the rise, not on the decline. Four of these five pitchers are due less than $18 million AAV over the next three years, and not one has openly been critical of Theo Epstein’s “Plan.”

Samardzija even turned down a reported five-year, $80 million deal because of what was believed to be discontent with the team’s competitiveness. In a way, his exit was more like an abandonment than it was a trade. So what gives? Why is Jeff Samardzija a better target?

First, he doesn’t have even the slightest whiff of an injury history, unless you consider the persistent douchebag label to be some sort of physical malady (I don’t and it isn’t). Samardzija has eaten more than 200 innings in each of his last four seasons and we can presume that lat strains, elbow inflammation, imminent attrition due to excessive slider usage, and so on won’t be an issue moving forward.

Second, this 2017 Samardzija is doing exactly what he should be doing. Finally. For the better part of the last three seasons, I consistently asked why Samardzija suddenly threw one of the league’s most effective pitches less often. Having made a career with the Cubs in large part due to his splitter, he seemed to have parted ways with the filthy pitch in favor of a cutter. Now, for the first time since 2013 — the year in which he finished with a 2.99 ERA and 3.20 FIP — Samardzija is throwing more splitters than cutters. In fact, we’ve seen a 75% decrease his cutter usage, which has led to a 10.46 K/9, 1.46 BB/9, 3.28 FIP, and 2.96 SIERA thus far in the 2017 season.

Maybe one reason the key cog in the Addison Russell trade has been subpar since being traded (4.18 ERA, 3.82 FIP) is because of the cutter/splitter tradeoff. The moment he started throwing more cutters, his whiff rate experienced a precipitous drop. Why? Because the pitch that used to be in the top 92% of whiffs was replaced by a cutter that wasn’t fooling anyone.

And thanks to the great work of FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris, we have an explanation for the splitter revolution.

“My cutter was sinking,” Samardzija explained. “Once I started to see my splitter come around from not turning, that kind of changed it for me. So we’ll throw sliders, and the splitter is sinking, so now we’re working down off the plate and we just need to figure out how to stay up over the plate with a four-seam.”

Sarris talks in great detail with Samardzija about the changes, but the central focus of their discussion is Samardzija’s simplified delivery, in which he doesn’t rotate back on that knee anymore, as seen below by footage the author pointed out.



As for the behavioral portion of Samardzija’s value, I think the whole situation has been overblown. He was brought up to much fanfare by the previous regime and was brought along slowly in an organization that had a completely different mindset from the one we know now. When he eventually began to thrive, his success was drowned out by questions regarding the rebuild.

Of course a natural competitor is going to be opposed to talk of strategic competitive suppression and winning later. He wanted to win, and he wanted to win now. It wasn’t as if he was barking at the media the same way John Lackey does at umpires.

Further, Samardzija himself didn’t turn down the extension proposal. No, his representation made that call, justifiably so. Even after a terrible 2015 season in which he pitched to a 4.96 ERA, the Giants shelled out $90 million over five years. Shark’s agent made the right choice, as all parties involved ended up making more money. And just prior to Samardzija signing the contract with San Francisco, Epstein personally met with the pitcher, indicating that no serious ill will was there.

Finally, Samardzija is due $54 million over the next three years. That’s really not that bad at all. Remember, the Cubs gave paid Lackey $32 million for two years. And with the upward slope of $/WAR annually, $18M AAV is essentially the same value as Lackey’s contract. With Samardzija’s 2017 FIP of 2.89 and reversion back to his Cubs days, more seasons like 2014 are not out of the question. Plus, throwing him back with pitching coach Chris Bosio, who helped make him the pitcher he was and is, can only do good.

Undoubtedly, the Cubs would still have to part with young players to acquire the Giants pitcher. But the cost there probably isn’t nearly as high as what they’d have to give up for Gray and Archer, right? Greinke is due too much money, right? Odorizzi doesn’t have the flash, right? And no way Stroman is available, right? Shark might be the answer.

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