Hot Stove Rumblings: Why are the Samardzija Extension Negotiations at a Standstill?

Trade speculation surrounding Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija  is heating up at this week’s Winter Meetings. Less discussed is the logic behind the Samardzija extension negotiation. Samardzija appears to be a good fit for the rebuilding Cubs and every indication is that the pitcher from nearby Valparaiso, Indiana, wants to stay in Wrigleyville. So why is there yet no deal? There is little doubt the Cubs would sign Samardzija if they could do so on a deal similar in total dollars to the Anthony Rizzoand Starlin Castro extensions executed last winter, albeit for less years and a higher annual salary. Rizzo’s deal will total $66 million if the Cubs exercise team options in the final two years of the deal (2020 and 2021). Castro will earn a total of $69 million if the Cubs keep him through his 2020 option year.

Steamer projections at FanGraphs forecast Samardzija to be a 2.8 WAR pitcher next season – equivalent to a middling No. 2 or good No. 3 starter – in his age-29 season. This is exactly what Samardzija was in 2013, when he had an 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA with 214 strikeouts in 213 innings pitched. Assuming a 2.8 WAR peak at ages 29 and 30, and an age regression of 0.5 WAR after age 30, Samardzija will accumulate 11 WAR during the next 5 seasons:

  • 2014:   2.8 WAR (age 29)
  • 2015:   2.8 WAR (age 30)
  • 2016:   2.3 WAR (age 31)
  • 2017:   1.8 WAR (age 32)
  • 2018:   1.3 WAR (age 33)

At a going rate of $6 million per win, a reasonable free agent deal for Samardzija in this year’s inflated marketplace would yield in the neighborhood of 5 years and $66 million. Even though he is not a free agent, I think the Cubs would ink a deal in the 5 year/$60 million range today if Samardzija would sign it.

The Cubs have Samardzija under team-control for the next two seasons, during which he can expect to earn approximately $13 million in his final two years of arbitration eligibility, using estimates of $5 million for 2014 and $8 million for 2015.  Signing for $60 million today, at five years, would provide Samardzija an additional $47 million in guaranteed money covering his first three free agent-eligible seasons. Superficially, this seems like a no-brainer for a 2.8 WAR pitcher who cannot reach free agency until age 31. So why won’t Samardzija sign this deal?  The most obvious reason is that Samardzija does not see himself as a middling No. 2 or good No. 3 starter. Samardzija sees himself as a staff ace. This is not a bad thing – it is part and parcel of why Cub fans (and coaches, scouts, and team executives) like him so much.  Samardzija is an ultra-competitive, elite athlete who believes he can be better at age-29 in his third full season as a starter than he was in the first two, when he accumulated 5.8 WAR (per FanGraphs). This is not an entirely unreasonable belief. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that Samardzija is better than his numbers. (The Notre Dame football star factor and the flowing locks, no doubt!) The problem with this wisdom is that there is no real data to back it up. Samardzija is a very good pitcher, but there is no statistical-based reason to expect he will emerge as an ace at age 29 or 30.

A quick scan of age-based similar players (though age 28) on Baseball-Reference will not exactly warm the hearts of Samardzija’s agents. This tool admittedly has more novelty than predictive value, but it does provide us with an interesting set of historical antecedents and includes several Cubs toward the top of the list:

  • Juan Cruz
  • Calvin Schiraldi
  • Kevin Correia
  • Carlos Villaneuva
  • Bill Swift
  • Dave Stewart
  • Mark Grant
  • Ron Schueler
  • Renie Martin
  • Willie Fraser

Even in today’s inflated market, I don’t think “$66 million player” is the first thing popping into a team executive’s head after reviewing this list! The lone exception is Dave Stewart, an athletic power pitcher like Samardzija who bloomed relatively late and became a top-tier starter for the Oakland A’s in the late 1980’s. After scuttling back and forth between bullpens and starting rotations with the Dodgers, Rangers, and Phillies during his 20s, Stewart became a full-time starter at age 30 and won 20 games four straight years (1987 – 1990), accumulating 17.8 WAR during his age 30-33 seasons. Samardzija no doubt sees a similar trajectory for himself after accumulating statistics similar to Stewart during his first six seasons in the majors.

With today’s escalating free agent market and television money continuing to flow into the game at unprecedented rates, Samardzija may be smart to hold out for a more lucrative deal. But he likely won’t get much more than $60 million from the Cubs at this juncture. The Cubs surely don’t see Juan Cruz when they evaluate Samardzija’s value, but they also don’t see Dave Stewart.  Ultimately, the logic of “no extension / wait it out” exerts forces on both sides of the negotiation.  Thus, the parties remain at a standstill while the Cubs field trade offers from teams at the Winter Meetings. Samardzija has already earned more than $17 million in his Cubs career (owing to the NFL leverage he used in signing his first deal) and will earn $5 million more in 2014. He can afford more than most players in his situation to wait. The Cubs are also in no hurry since they retain team-control for two more years. If Samardzija is neither traded nor extended and emerges Stewart-like in 2014, it is good for both sides: good for Samardzija because he is on his way to becoming the $100+ million player he thinks he is and good for the Cubs because both his player value to the Cubs and trade value to a contending team will increase exponentially all at once.  On the other hand, if Samardzija more predictably remains a 2.5 to 3.0 WAR pitcher at age 29, he will remain a good value for the Cubs, he will still be worth a $60 to $70 million extension, and his trade value will remain high through the July 31, 2014, trade deadline. In other words, barring an early-season injury, the status quo will hold for both sides at least through the middle of next summer.

Photo: Jeff Samardzija / Mike LaChance / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: cropped edges


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