By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Fifteen major league scouts from as many as 10 teams were at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday afternoon to watch right-hander Jeff Samardzija make what could possibly be his last rotation turn for the White Sox.
Set to become a free agent in November, Samardzija has long been considered a trade chip for the underachieving team and he admitted as much earlier this season. Yet the White Sox are playing there best baseball of the season in the last two weeks, and it’s still not clear whether the front office will deal hot commodities like Samardzija, who was outstanding Thursday in throwing a four-hit shutout to lead Chicago to a 2-0 win against Toronto.
Samardzija came out dealing. He threw five no-hit innings, allowing just one walk, before giving up his first hit with one out in the sixth. He was strong all the way through in recording his first complete game shutout of the season and third of his career.
“We can handle all of that (trade talk) right here in this clubhouse,” Samardzija said. “If we do a good job, we will be all right. If we don’t, it will be out of our hands.”
The trade speculation of Samardzija has been predicated on Chicago’s struggle to show any sign of playoff life in the first half of 2015. The White Sox started the day 11 games behind the first-place Royals in the AL Central, while they ended their contest six games out of the second wild card, a spot that 10 bunched-up teams are chasing.
Samardzija has been scouted heavily by Toronto and Kansas City for more than a month. With a recent surge, Boston’s now a buyer looking for top-of-the-rotation arms. All three teams have had numerous scouts filling out reports on Samardzija.
Having won seven of their last nine, Samardzija and his teammates are hoping to fight off outside suitors and get back into the race.
“This was a good game for us,” Samardzija said. “We need to keep playing well and hopefully let them (the front office) know, ‘Hey, we are here.'”
Samardzija has been traded twice in the last year. He was dealt from the Cubs to the Athletics last July 4, the shipped to the White Sox in December for four players.
“They are aware of it,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said of the constant trade chatter. “A guy like him that has played a long time and has been moved is aware of it. Will it affect him? I would hope not. Certainly he is aware of it. Is it going to affect him? He competes to win that day, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. Right now he has been pitching well.”
Samardzija has been most effective with his breaking stuff over the past month-and-a-half. Scouts say changing the eye level of hitters and displaying speed variance has been the key to his overall improvement. Samardzija’s ERA fell from 4.33 to 4.02 with Thursday’s gem, and he has gone at least seven innings in seven straight starts.
“Command has been he biggest thing for him,” Ventura said. “He has had some games when he did well without great command. For the most part when he has had good control of his split and slider, that has been key in limiting what (teams can do against him).”
The ball is still in the White Sox players’ court. They now move to Wrigley Field for three games this weekend against the rival Cubs to close out the first half of the season.
Samardzija just wants to keep rolling.
“Early in the year, I was pressing a lot,” he said. “I felt I had a lot to prove in a place that I talked about so long and watched so long. You get too excited. I just had to pull back what works for you. For me, it’s pounding the zone with my sinker and slider for strikes, plus using the split finger pitch down in the zone.”
The White Sox can hold onto Samardzija all year if they want. If he signs elsewhere under those terms as a free agent, the White Sox will get a sandwich draft pick from the signing club. That will come after the first-round selections are complete in the 2016 amateur draft.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.