Who will (and should) blink first in Jays-Cubs Samardzija stare-down?
The Toronto Blue Jays have the prospects to trade for Jeff Samardzija right now.
Samardzija, the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day starter, is available on the midseason marketplace, after he rejected the team’s most recent offer of a contract extension. The Jays are interested enough that they’ve scouted him extensively this season. Their pro scouting director, Perry Minasian, attended his start Monday at Wrigley Field.
Furthermore, the Cubs have evaluated the Jays’ farm system, and there are strong indications they would trade Samardzija to Toronto if the Jays offered Triple-A right-hander Aaron Sanchez, Double-A left-hander Daniel Norris, and Class-A center fielder Dalton Pompey.
The problem: The Jays maintain they won’t include Sanchez, Norris and Pompey in the same offer for Samardzija — or any other available player, including Tampa Bay ace David Price.
The Jays may be willing to trade one or two players from that group. But not all three. At least, not yet.
Thus, with one month and change before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, Samardzija is a Cub.
In that way, the Samardzija Stalemate is becoming one of the key subplots of Trade Deadline 2014.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos never has been at the helm of a first-place team this late in the season, and he’s hearing calls to act from a fan base — indeed, an entire country — that hasn’t witnessed October baseball in 21 years. But patience has served him well so far in 2014. He kept right-handed pitching prospect Marcus Stroman despite offseason trade inquiries, and now Stroman is thriving in the major league rotation — including a command performance (eight innings, one earned run) in a win over the Yankees on Monday night.
The Jays will probably upgrade their rotation before the deadline, although not necessarily with Samardzija. They are said to prefer Price (2012 American League Cy Young Award winner; definitely available) or Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels (three-time All-Star; possibly available). The track records of Price and Hamels more closely approximate those of Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia — who won Cy Youngs before teams parted with multiple high-end prospects to acquire them in recent years. Samardzija, 29, has yet to make an All-Star team.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are led by two executives — Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer — who own World Series rings because of their deadline acumen. Epstein, you recall, was the GM bold enough to trade Boston icon Nomar Garciaparra 10 years ago.
Samardzija isn’t as desirable as Price, who’s performed better while proving himself in the American League East. But the Cubs realize that, given the scarcity of available pitching, they’re justified in high asking prices for Samardzija and fellow starter Jason Hammel — even if the Jays (and perhaps other teams) don’t regard Samardzija ’14 as the equivalent of Sabathia ’08 or Lee ’09.
In Monday’s no-decision against the Reds — six innings, one earned run — Samardzija proved again why he warrants such close scrutiny from Blue Jays scouts. His uncommon repertoire includes a slider that reached 88 mph and devastating split-fingered fastball; those swing-and-miss pitches allowed him to escape trouble in the middle innings.
And yet Samardzija hit Cincinnati catcher Devin Mesoraco with two pitches . . . walked Reds starter Alfredo Simon . . . snapped a bat over his leg when he failed to execute a sacrifice bunt . . . and left too many fastballs over the heart of the plate. Against a more consistent offensive team, from the AL East, the lone run he allowed could have turned into five.
In many ways, Samardzija’s Aug. 1 whereabouts hinges on how desperate the Blue Jays become between now and then. Interestingly, the Blue Jays were in the opposite position — with the young Anthopoulos as their assistant GM — five years ago, during the Roy Halladay sweepstakes. They possessed the pitcher every contender wanted and scripted their wish list accordingly.
From the Philadelphia Phillies, the presumptive favorite to land Halladay, the Jays requested prospects Domonic Brown, J.A. Happ and Kyle Drabek. The Phillies said that price was too steep, acquired Lee from Cleveland, reached the World Series, lost to the Yankees . . . and then landed Halladay during the subsequent winter, in a deal that included Drabek. Happ arrived in a later deal (with Houston) and is part of the Jays’ current rotation. Halladay, the preeminent pitcher of his time, retired without winning the World Series he desperately wanted.
Perhaps there are a few lessons in that history, about how good the No. 2 alternative (Lee) can be, and whether many “untouchable” prospects (Brown, the .247 career hitter) are worthy of that designation. For now, all we know is that the Cubs and Jays are engaged in a 500-mile staring contest . . . with the trade deadline, the pennant races, and the World Series suspended somewhere in between.