With Memorial Day approaching, fans across baseball are getting a better idea as to which teams are lining up to be buyers and sellers heading into the dog days of summer. One player that is sure to be available this summer is Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija.
So far in 2014, Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, but if you simply looked at his win-loss record, you’d never know it. Chicago has been criminal in how few runs the team has scored in support of Samardzija, who is miraculously 0-4 despite a 1.62 ERA. All of Samardzija’s peripherals are exemplary, striking out better than 20% of batters he’s face and walking just 7.7% of batters. He’s also put up a 1.4 fWAR through his first nine starts and have kept balls on the ground at a career-best rate of 50.4% of batted balls thus far.
The reason why the Cubs are likely to sell now on Samardzija is not just performance-based for a losing team, but that teams trading for him will see the value in his one more year of arbitration eligibility after the 2014 season. Samardzija won’t turn 30 until next January, and a team could try to lock him up in an extension before he hits free agency come the off-season of 2015. Should the Cubs wait until the off-season, the return likely won’t be as strong.
Before we get into what the offers for Samardzija may look like, it’s important to understand the value Samardzija currently has. He’s a front-of-the-rotation starter that is healthy and under team control for an additional year. Even if the team trading for Samardzija doesn’t want to extend him, they can offer him a qualifying offer after the 2015 season and get, at worst, draft pick compensation in return. This is the highest Samardzija’s value will be, and the best time for the Cubs to trade him and another team to acquire him.
It’s also important to note that the best possible matches to the Cubs in trade are teams with high ceiling starting pitcher prospects. Chicago has plenty of bats in their system (namely Javier Baez and Kris Bryant), but are rather barren on the pitching front. If a team wants to stand out in Jeff Samardzija trade negotiations, they have to be prepared to give up one of their best pitching prospects.
To me, there are five teams that make the most sense for Samardzija:
Toronto Blue Jays
TRADE: Cubs send Jeff Samardzija to Blue Jays for P Aaron Sanchez, P Sean Nolin and PTBNL
Unlike the other teams in this post, the Blue Jays have already been connected to Samardzija in the rumor mill this season. The American League East hasn’t quite been the division we thought it would be this year, with both the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays struggling deep into May and sitting below-.500.
Even after the Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey trades decimated Toronto’s farm system, there are still plenty of pieces available within the organization to trade for an impact pitcher like Samardzija. Chicago will want to get the Blue Jays to include Aaron Sanchez, Toronto’s top pitching prospect and the 20th-best prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com, in the deal. However, Toronto would probably feel more comfortable including their #2 prospect, Marcus Stroman (MLB.com’s 48th-best prospect). The question is: Can the Cubs get the Blue Jays to break and include the higher-rated Sanchez?
As for Sean Nolin, he’s a nice pitcher that doesn’t have nearly the ceiling of either Sanchez or Stroman, but can instantly fill a whole in the Cubs MLB rotation with the exodus of Samardzija. The sooner the Cubs can work out a deal with the Blue Jays, the more they can get out of them considering where Toronto sits in the standings. Sanchez is a high price to pay for Samardzija, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for this deal to be completed.
TRADE: Cubs send Jeff Samardzija to Rockies for P Eddie Butler and SS Trevor Story
Colorado has been riding the hot starts of Troy Tulowitzki, Charlie Blackmon and Justin Morneau offensively, but their pitching – or lack thereof – will be what determines how far this team can go this season. It’ll be an uphill battle for them to keep up with either the Dodgers or the Giants for the division crown, but the second Wild Card spot isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Like the Blue Jays, the Rockies have a pair of highly-regarded pitching prospects in their Minor Leagues, with the best being stud righty Jonathan Gray. Gray is the 13th-best prospected rated by MLB.com, and was the third overall pick in 2013. By all accounts, there isn’t a player short of Mike Trout the Rockies would include Gray in a trade for.
Even with Gray off limits, the Rockies have the pieces to get a trade done. Gray’s AA teammate, Eddie Butler, is a great pitching prospect himself and is having an equally dominate season in the minors thus far. MLB.com has ranked Butler as the 34th-best prospect in the game, and isn’t too far from being ready to make an impact at the big league level. For comparison purposes, Butler is a little behind Aaron Sanchez in terms of potential, but ahead of Marcus Stroman, which is also reflected in their respective rankings. However, Butler is closer to making his MLB debut than Sanchez, but that’s not necessarily what the Cubs are looking for anyway.
As for the inclusion of Trevor Story in the deal, the former compensatory first round pick in 2011 would provide the Cubs with more Minor League depth should they look to make their own trade for an impact pitcher down the road. He isn’t a better prospect than Baez or even Arismendy Alcantara in terms of young middle infield prospects the Cubs currently have, and the team still has Starlin Castro at the big league level. There is value in having players other teams see as valuable, which is why Chicago would be smart to ask for Story in the deal. He’s blocked in Colorado by Tulowitzki, though he could shift to second down the road. Nevertheless, he’s a player the Rockies would feel comfortable moving for the right piece, which should be Jeff Samardzija.
TRADE: Cubs send Jeff Samardzija to Orioles for P Hunter Harvey, P Mike Wright and C Chance Sisco
We’ve already talked about how upside down the American League East has been this year, and the Baltimore Orioles need more pitching if they plan on getting ahead of the pack. Everybody outside of Chris Tillman has under-performed this year in the starting rotation, and even Tillman hasn’t been what many expected.
The path for the Orioles to bring in Samardzija is a little tougher. I don’t see a scenario in which Baltimore would give up their best prospect – Dylan Bundy, who is still recovering from Tommy John – for Samardzija. Despite his high pre-season prospect ranking, more scouts around the league are seeing lefty Eduardo Rodriguez (55th prospect, according to MLB.com) as a middle-of-the-rotation arm as opposed to the higher ceiling prospects the Cubs could be looking to get in return.
For Baltimore, it may mean trading more prospects in bulk. There are some around the league that feel Hunter Harvey, the 22nd overall pick in 2013, has passed Rodriguez in terms of potential MLB impact, and it’s possible. But, Harvey is also currently pitching in the Low-A South Atlantic League, and has at least two more years of development away from making an impact, during which anything could happen. Mike Wright, much like Sean Nolin in Toronto, would be a young arm that could slide directly into the Cubs rotation, but doesn’t nearly have the upside of a Harvey or even Rodriguez. As for Sisco, there is no such thing as too much catching depth in your Minor Leagues, and despite the Cubs having a ton of bats making their way up the ladder, they’re rather thin at catcher. Sisco is currently a Low-A teammate of Harvey, so he, too, is at least two years of development away from being a factor. But, the Cubs do have Welington Castillo with the big league club now, so the need isn’t pressing.
TRADE: Cubs send Jeff Samardzija to Rangers for 2B Rougned Odor and P Alex Gonzalez
The need for pitching in Texas is huge, especially after the injuries to Martin Perez and Matt Harrison. The Rangers certainly have the Minor League pieces to make a trade happen, but the Cubs are not an ideal match thanks to all of the Rangers top prospects being hitters. Texas can dangle the likes of Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Luis Sardinas and Jorge Alfaro to get almost any top flight pitcher available on the trade market this summer, but those names aren’t as valuable to the Cubs because, again, they have plenty of hitting themselves.
If Texas wants Samardzija, they’re going to have to include Alex Gonzalez in the offer. Gonzalez is arguably the team’s best pitching prospect after the Rangers selected him 23rd overall in last year’s draft traded away C.J. Edwards (to the Cubs!). Gonzalez is more advanced in his development than Hunter Harvey in Baltimore, but doesn’t have quite the same ceiling, though some reports indicate that Gonzalez can develop into a #2-type starter if everything breaks correctly.
Odor going to Chicago is more along the same lines as Trevor Story’s inclusion in the Rockies offer, but he’s a much better prospect. Odor is MLB-ready now, and fans can dream of an up-the-middle infield of Baez and Odor for many years to come, with the flanks taken by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. You’d be hard pressed to find a more powerful infield in baseball. Odor would also make trading Starlin Castro for even more developmental pieces easier, but Chicago still hasn’t shown any indication that a Castro move is something they want to do.
If the true goal for the Cubs is to get top flight pitching in return for Samardzija, the Rangers aren’t their dance partner. However, it is tantalizing to think of Odor making his way to the Windy City and that infield becoming a true powerhouse.
New York Yankees
TRADE: Cubs send Jeff Samardziga to Yankees for C Gary Sanchez, P Ian Clarkin and P Luis Serevino
The Yankees have suffered so many injuries to their starting rotation that it kind of makes your head spin. C.C. Sabathia will be out until mid-July thanks to a balky knee. Ivan Nova is out for the season after his own Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda’s pine-tar neck couldn’t help his strained side.
However, the Yankees troubles in getting Samardzija from the Cubs is much like the Rangers. They don’t have the pitching the Cubs are looking for to get a deal done without giving up an extra prospect. Gary Sanchez is a great catching prospect, and he could easily be better than Welington Castillo in the near future. But, the need for Sanchez isn’t really there for Chicago’s front office and the team would much rather find better arms.
Ian Clarkin and Luis Serevino are both high upside starters, but are also both in Low-A baseball right now. Neither are expected to make an impact before 2017, which is after the time frame the Cubs believe they’ll be competitive again. Every pitching prospect mentioned in this column are better pitching prospects as of right now, so I’m not certain Theo Epstein and Co. would be too thrilled if this is the best haul they could get for Samardzija.
The Yankees would love to have him, but the pieces may not add up.
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