Jeff Samardzija: The Summer of Shark

We all knew, those of us that follow the Cubs, that a trade was going to happen. The summer of Shark was not going to end well in Chicago, because the MO of this front office has been clearly defined by now. Starting pitching is routinely, and as a matter of course, traded away for prospects. This year, it turns out, isn’t any different from the first two of the Epstein/Hoyer regime.

Jeff Samardzija–I’ve invested the time to learn how to spell his name from memory–was an interesting case. He was an Indiana boy who played football at Notre Dame, and probably could have been a wide receiver in the NFL had he not chosen to play baseball and pitch for the Cubs. Multi-sport athletes rarely choose baseball over football anymore, and we hope that decision pays off for him in the long run. Bo Jackson and the hip injury that doomed his football career is a reminder that baseball players probably have a longer shelf life than football players do. And as a starting pitcher, Shark will be able to play the game for many more years than if he had gone the football route. So in that sense, the decision to play baseball will be a very rewarding one for him.

You could make the case that Shark was the last link to the Lou Piniella and Jim Hendry era in Chicago. Certainly he was the last player from the disappointing 2008 team still on the Cubs roster. Starlin Castro and Welington Castillo and Darwin Barney–the current big league talent left over from the Hendry era–were not yet in the majors in 2008. So Samardzija was the last of that era, and even though the teams did not accomplish anything moe than winning division titles and bombing out in the playoffs, its passing should at least be noted.

I think Jeff Samardzija hated it here in Chicago, no matter what he said to the media. The term “snakebit” seems like it could be twisted into “Sharkbit” and applied to him. How many times did he pitch well enough to win, only to receive no run support? It happened on Opening day in Pittsburgh, that’s for sure. Or he would sometimes leave the game with a lead and be in line for a win, but the bullpen would give it away in the late innings. That was his reality in this town, and all of the fan support and media attention couldn’t undo it. His first start in Oakland resulted in a Win, and I’m sure his struggles to get that first win in Chicago this year–it only took eleven starts, three of which he didn’t allow a single run–seemed very far away. Sharks can’t survive in fresh water, and a move to the salty waters of the Bay area will suit him just fine.

Everybody knew that signing Jason Hammel to a one-year deal last winter also made him trade bait. Hammel deflected questions whenever they came up, but he knew it was coming, too. His was the first free agent contract of his career, and he took a one-year deal to prove that he could pitch at a high level. His injury in Baltimore–inflammation around his ulnar nerve–hurt his free agent stock, and lingering concern about a surgically repaired knee may also be an issue. But his performance in Chicago this year has earned him a multi-year contract somewhere beginning next year, provided that he doesn’t get hurt in the second half of this season.

I wanted Hammel to get to ten wins in a Cubs uniform this season, because it would have been the first time a Cubs pitcher has done it since this front office came to town. Smardzija never did it, nor has Travis Wood reached that level. People can say what they will about Wins as a useful statistic to evaluate pitchers, but nobody will ever get to the postseason without several ten-game winners on their pitching staff. Hammel had eight wins for the Cubs, and ten was definitely attainable, but it was not to be. And anyone who thinks contention is just around the corner needs to evaluate the dearth of starting pitching in this organization right now. Jake Arrieta is very exciting, and C.J. Edwards could also be good some day, but starting pitching is the Cubs’ Achilles heel at the moment.

I’m excited for what Addison Russell, Dan Straily, and Billy McKinney can bring to the team. I especially like having a player named “Addison” playing for the Cubs. How many people out there are named “Addison” because their dad is a big Cubs fan? I’m sure there are more than a few. But I’ll let the prospect watchers among us comment on their particular situations. I’m more of a “if it doesn’t happen in the majors, I don’t want to hear about it” sort of fan. Growing up in a minor league town, and realizing that the minors are never seen as a destination by any player, I can’t get too excited about what goes on in Iowa, or Tennessee, or Kane County, or the Arizona Fall League. But if they can contribute at the big league level, then all the better for us all.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!

Photo: Astros-Cubs, August 8, 2008 / The West End / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Alteration: None