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Prospect Retrospective: Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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Jeff Samardzjia
Jeff Samardzjia
Christian Petersen

Trade rumors have been swirling for weeks about Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija. His development as a prospect was unusual, to say the least, but demonstrates why teams don't like to give up on live arms.

Samardzija was both a football and baseball player at Notre Dame. A 6-6, 215 pound wide receiver, he had an excellent fall in 2005. In the spring of '06 he went 8-2, 4.33 in 15 starts for the baseball team, posting a 61/37 K/BB in 98 innings. He could hit 98 MPH but his secondary pitches were below average and his strikeout rate notably low for a guy who could throw that hard.

The Cubs drafted him in the fifth round in'06, giving him a $250,000 standard bonus.  His pro debut in the summer of '06 was reasonable: 30 innings over seven starts for Boise in the Northwest League and Peoria in the Midwest League resulted in a 2.70 ERA and a 17/12 K/BB. He didn't walk the world and was throwing 96-97 MPH, but the lack of strikeouts still reflected problems with his secondary pitches.

He agreed in January 2007 to a separate major league contract worth five years and $10,000,000, convincing him to give up football.

His first full baseball season in 2007 was, well, weird. Opening with 24 starts for High-A Daytona, he posted an ugly set of numbers: 4.95 ERA, 142 hits in 107 innings. He walked just 35 but his K-rate remained very low with just 45 strikeouts. Depending on what day you saw him, his fastball velocity varied anywhere between 88 and 95 MPH. His curveball and changeup drew poor reviews and in general he was consistently overmatched by High-A hitters.

Undeterred, the Cubs promoted him to Double-A in August anyway. Nobody but the Cubs expected this to go well, but somehow he posted a 3.41 ERA with a 20/9 K/BB in 34 innings with 32 hits allowed. His velocity was better than it was at Daytona, although his secondary pitches were still just so-so. I gave him a Grade B- entering 2008, writing that his physical talent was obvious but that I "hadn't the foggiest notion" what to expect.

The same pattern occurred in 2008. He was horrible at Double-A Tennessee, with a 4.86 ERA in 76 innings, a weak 44/42 K/BB, and consistently negative reports from observers about his secondary pitches. The Cubs didn't care and promoted him to Triple-A Iowa in June, where he suddenly improved and posted a 3.13 ERA and a 40/16 K/BB in 37 innings. Note the giant spike in strikeouts, which reports traced to the rapid development of a splitter. He moved up to the Cubs bullpen in July, where he showed a 98 MPH fastball, a much better slider to go with the splitter, and a 2.28 ERA in 28 innings.

I gave him a Grade B entering 2009, writing that he "could end up as an overpowering major league reliever, or he could fall apart in spring training and end up back in the minors. He could go to Iowa and dominate the PCL for two months, or he could go back to Iowa, post a 7.00 ERA, and end up in Tennessee again."

The 7.00 ERA (actually 7.53) came in Chicago, where he did indeed fall apart with poor performance in 35 innings. He was better at Iowa (4.35, 71/27 K/BB in 89 innings) but far from dominant. 2010 was even more extreme: horrible in Chicago (8.38, 20 walks in 19 innings) but competent in Triple-A (4.37, 102/67 K/BB in 111 innings).

He finally got his act together in the majors in 2011 with a good year in the bullpen, then moved into the starting rotation in 2012. As you know he had solid seasons in '12 (3.0 fWAR)  and '13 (2.8 fWAR) then a large step forward this year. He has 2.3 fWAR already this year, with a 2.53 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and a 97/31 K/BB in 103 innings.

Like I said, it's a weird track record.

Samardzija was quite raw when drafted and was often ineffective in the minor leagues. His strikeout rates were very low at first, a reflection that his secondary pitches were unreliable, at best. Despite that, the Cubs would advance him aggressively at the first sign of progress; he developed a pattern of pitching well after a promotion, followed by a period of stagnation if not outright regression.

Eventually it all came together: his fastball command improved, he developed a full arsenal to go with the heat, and he's one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. When teams draft a raw 6-6 pitcher, this is what they are looking for, even if it takes time to happen.

Samardzija turned down a five-year, $85 million contract extension and is said to be looking for a $100 million deal. Where does he go from here? Is he worth a huge contract extension or a a large package of prospects in trade?

Dave Cameron had some thoughts about that last week at Fangraphs that I generally agree with
. Just my opinion, but I think a large contract extension is a very risky bet given the entirety of Samardzija's track record. I'd like to see more than a half-season of ace-like pitching before putting down that kind of money.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't trade for him if I were a contending team needing a pitching boost down the stretch, but I don't think I would gut my farm system for him, either. It would depend on the specific prospects the Cubs wanted.