Everyone in baseball knows that the Washington Nationals are looking for a starting pitcher. The benefits of acquiring one are easy to see — another starting pitcher allows the Nats to have an all-veteran rotation, and keep viable starters Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan in the minors as much-needed depth. But the starters on the free-agent market are lackluster and expensive, and so the Nats have been discussing adding a starter via trade. So far, most debate in the media has been over David Price and Max Scherzer; two aces with lofty price rages. However, over the weekend, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post suggested another player; Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija.
No two paths to the major leagues are alike, but Samardzija career path has been truly unique. Samardzija was truly a two-sport star at the University of Notre Dame, where he attended from 2003 to 2006. He went 21-6 over 3 years as a starting pitcher for the Fighting Irish, with a 3.81 ERA. He also starred as a wide receiver on the football team, and his 2,593 recovering yards are the most in the storied history of Notre Dame football.
After college, Samardzija initially announced that he would play both pro football and baseball, but after being selected by the Cubs in the 5th round, he settled on a baseball career. Despite mediocre numbers, he rose quickly through the Cubs’ system, and his major league debut in 2008 prompted then-manager Lou Pinella to say that he might never again see the minor leagues. But Samardzija struggled in 2009 and 2010, and was shuttled back and forth between Chicago and AAA Iowa.
In 2011, Samardzija finally came into his own. In 75 relief appearances spanning 88 innings, he had a 2.97 ERA. His K/9 jumped from 4.2 to 8.9, and while he still walked over 5 batters every 9 innings, his low hit total managed to keep his WHIP respectable. It seemed Samardzija had finally found his role in the big leagues.
Then, the Cubs decided to change that role; over the winter, he trained to become a starting pitcher. Samardzija won the 3rd starter spot out of Spring Training 2012, and in his first start (against the Nationals), he very nearly threw a complete game. Samardzija had himself a very solid 2012, posting a 3.81 ERA; importantly, his strikeouts stayed relatively constant (they actually increased from 8.9 to 9.3 K/9), but his walk rate dropped precipitously, all the way below 3 per 9 innings.
Samardzija regressed some in 2013, but his peripheral stats were very good; he was fifth in the league in K/9. Additionally, he worked 213.2 innings, almost identical to the workload of Jordan Zimmermann.
Samardzija throws four pitches, including a slider, cutter, and splitter, but as with most power pitchers, everything works off the fastball. He averaged 94.5 MPH with the heat this year (according to FanGraphs, BrooksBaseball actually has him at 95.3 MPH), down slightly from last year but still fast enough to rank him 6th in the majors. More importantly, Samardzija does not appear to wear down as the game goes on; his fastball velocity in innings 7-9 actually bests his velocity in innings 1-3.
A Samardzija acquisition would put the Nationals rotation in a great position. With Samardzija, the Nats would have five starters who all average at least 92 MPH with the fastball, and two more in Roark (93.8 MPH) and Jordan (93.4 MPH) waiting in the wings. More importantly, Samardzija would not command the package of a Price or a Scherzer; any deal for those two would likely have to include Anthony Rendon, a piece the Nats are likely unwilling to move. Plus, Samardzija is under control for two more years — the Nats can keep him this year, then decide to either flip him in 2015 or retain him, based on the market and the development of their pitching prospects. A trade for Samardzija would make the Nationals better today, without mortgaging their future.