By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Watching Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija pitch against his former team Thursday afternoon may have ignited some fresh thoughts in the minds of a Cubs front office in search of a big-time arm and a controllable contract.
Although Samardzija and the Giants fell 5-1 at Wrigley Field, he pitched seven strong innings, allowing three runs, all earned on solo homers, on six hits and a walk while striking out eight. It was the sixth time in his last eight starts that Samardzija threw at least seven innings.
The Cubs have made no secret their desire to obtain pitching for this year’s run at the playoffs and into the future. The team is scouting all possible trade candidates as the non-wavier trade deadline on July 31 starts to come into focus.
Why not look into Samardzija?
Until recently, it wouldn’t have made sense to scout the Giants starting pitchers, but the dynamic has changed in San Francisco with the prolonged absence of ace Madison Bumgarner and the team’s worst start in more than 15 years. After Thursday’s loss, the Giants are 20-29, residing in fourth place in the NL West and trailing the division-leading Rockies by 11 games.
The chatter has been that the Giants could look to pull off some quick rebuilding moves this season, much like the Yankees did in 2016 when they traded relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. That thought would be to dump some big contracts of big-name players in an effort to replenish the farm system.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto can opt out of his mega-contract after this season. He’s in the second season of a six-year, $130-million deal. That and the potential removal of Samardzija money from the Giants’ books would open up tremendous payroll relief.
As of today, the Giants owe the 32-year-old Samardzija about $66 million through 2020. He signed a five-year, $90-million deal ahead of the 2016 season.
While the traditional numbers suggest he’s had a rough season with a 1-6 mark and 4.50 ERA, the advanced metrics and eye test suggest Samardzija is throwing the ball as well as he ever has. He has a strong 1.12 WHIP, and he entered Thursday with a career-high strikeout rate (10.5 per nine innings) and career-low walk rate (1.5 per nine innings).
Samardzija was 12-11 with a 3.81 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 2016.
With Cubs starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey set to become free agents after this season, obtaining a pitcher of Samardzija’s profile is essential for the Cubs moving forward. Samardzija has been extremely durable, averaging 205 innings per season since become a full-time starter in 2012.
He spent 2008 until July 2014 with the Cubs, who then traded him to the Athletics in the deal that netted them All-Star shortstop Addison Russell.
Before that trade, the Cubs and Samardzija’s representation were in preliminary discussions on a five-year, $85-million deal.
“It is always kind of weird,”Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said about facing Samardzija, one of his closest teammates of the past. “Jeff was here for a long time. He was around for part of the rebuild and then we got Addison for him in a trade. It is always tough losing your friends and teammates.”
Samardzija can block a trade to 22 different franchises. He must give the Giants a list of eight teams that he would accept a trade to each season.
“I don’t think about that,” Samardzija said when asked him if he could envision coming back to the Cubs.
“I do hope I play a long, long time. I might check off a lot of teams on the list. This is a business. You can’t take anything for granted in this sport. I am just happy where I am at. We will see what the future holds for me.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.