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Better off signing, not trading Samardzija

3/18/2014

MESA, Ariz. -- You might think the time to trade Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija has come.

Contending teams with previous interest in the right-hander are losing pitchers on a near-daily basis. The Atlanta Braves are scrambling, as are the Arizona Diamondbacks because of injuries to top starters. Both have talked with the Cubs in the past about Samardzija.

Then on the same day the Oakland Athletics scratched starter Scott Kazmir from his start against the Cubs, they announced Jarrod Parker would undergo surgery. And A.J. Griffin is hurt for them as well.

Pitchers are dropping like flies.

It means the Cubs could get a king's ransom for Samardzija right? Maybe.

But it also underscores how fragile starting pitching can be. Samardzija is a horse who just reached the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career and hasn't spent any time on the disabled list. The urgency should be to sign him, not trade him.

The sides haven't had formative discussions on a long-term deal -- not even during talks to avoid arbitration -- in quite awhile because neither side will budge. But the Cubs can't afford to play hardball, not with their position player talent getting closer and closer to the big leagues. They need pitching. What they have on the mound in their system is looking better, but there's still a huge leap to be made.

Trading Samardzija still means replacing him in the coming years, and that will be expensive. The Cubs should dance with the devil they know because the one they know isn't all that bad. And he has proved to be healthy.

There are no guarantees in the health game when it comes to pitchers, but there are better bets than others, and Samardzija is probably as good a bet as you'll find. And if you think Samardzija is being unreasonable in his demands, remember, he isn't asking for Clayton Kershaw-type money.

Nor will he accept deals like Edwin Jackson's (four year, $52 million) or Matt Garza's (four years, $50 million with a fifth-year vesting option). Of those pitchers and Samardzija, who would you rather have on the mound for a contender? There's someone in between those examples -- Homer Bailey.

The Cincinnati Reds' 27-year-old righty just signed a six-year, $105 million deal. He's one year ahead of Samardzija as he would have been a free agent after 2014, but that's a small detail. The point is Homer Bailey is making $105 million.

Bailey is a fine pitcher with two no-hitters on his resume. His injury problems might be behind him (though he was scratched from a spring start last weekend) as he started 65 games over the past two seasons. But the Reds still rolled the dice. The Cubs need to do the same. Samardzija at 29 is only a couple years older than Bailey and that's easily offset by the fact that Bailey has thrown 853 career innings in the big leagues compared to Samardzija's 558.

Bailey's ERA last season (3.49 to 4.34) was better, but a lot of the other statistics over the past two years since Samardzija became a starter are comparable. And if you're a wins person, Bailey has never won more than 13, and he's playing for a playoff-caliber team right now. Even their salary structure is similar. Bailey made $5.35 million last season before signing his longer deal. Samardzija is making $5.34 million this season.

The point isn't to nitpick who's better -- Samardzija's career ERA is 4.19, Bailey's is 4.25. The point is there are enough similarities to use as a starting point for a contract. If Bailey got $105 million, can't Samardzija get $80 million or $90 million? It sounds crazy, but those are the going rates. Garza got $50 million and if he completes his contract without a disabled list stint all parties will be surprised. It's the opposite thought when it comes to Samardzija.

And this is worth repeating: If the Cubs don't spend now they will have to soon enough. There's no way they'll have enough within the system even if they do get a couple of good prospects back for Samardzija. And they all become injury risks. Samardzija checks so many boxes for the Cubs right now even if they overspend it will probably worth it.

He still hasn't had that dominant season from start to finish but neither has Bailey. In fact, it took him several years of starting and overcoming injuries to put together a solid year or two. Samardzija is in a similar position and hasn't been all that bad for a bad team.

"Sometimes there is going to be a natural gap where a player values himself for what he can do and the team has to factor in a little bit more what he has done," Cubs president Theo Epstein said this spring.

That might be true, but there are exceptions to the rule. And what Samardzija can do on a contending team has yet to be seen. Nothing has changed in the last 6-12 months even with the progression of Cubs hurlers on the farm. Roll the dice and sign Samardzija. He's going to get paid by someone.