Samardzija, Robertson remain strong fantasy bets with White Sox
You could be forgiven if you forgot that there are two baseball teams in Chicago. The Cubs grabbed the headlines right as the World Series ended, hiring Joe Maddon away from the Rays right as the team appears to be on the precipice of becoming relevant again. Their pursuit of high-end starting pitching, most notably Jon Lester, has kept them at the center of the action as fall gave way to winter. But it was their neighbors to the south who made the first big splash of this year's winter meetings.
Jeff Samardzija is headed back to Chicago, this time as a member of the White Sox. General manager Rick Hahn swung a deal for the soon-to-be 30-year-old righty for a package centered around infielder Marcus Semien. With one move, Hahn stole the headlines from Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and those attention hogs on the North Side, at least for one day. He also gave the White Sox one of the strongest rotations in the American League without giving up one significant piece of the team's future.
U.S. Cellular Field can be a tough place for pitchers, but Samardzija has the skill set, thanks to his deadly splitter, to be effective at home. Pitchers get into trouble at The Cell when they start allowing a ton of fly balls, especially in the summer. Samardzija ranked 27th among qualifying pitchers with a 30.5-percent fly-ball rate last season. His fly-ball rate has never been higher than one-third of his balls in play since becoming a full-time starter in 2012, and it has dropped every season. As you would expect, then, his ground-ball rate has increased in each of the last two seasons, peaking at 50.2 percent last year.
According to Brooks Baseball, Samardzija threw his splitter 11.63 percent of the time, and his sinker had a 31.03 percent usage rate. He managed to post ground-ball rates north of 55 percent with both pitches. His worst ground-ball rate for an individual offering was the 35.37 percent of his cutter, but when that's your lowest rate, you're clearly doing a good job of burning worms. Samardzija should be able to avoid the home-run related troubles that have plagued so many pitchers at U.S. Cellular Field.
Since becoming a full-time starter, Samardzija has done two things that should endear him to fantasy owners, regardless of what stadium he calls home: miss bats and stay healthy. Samardzija's strikeout rate has remained steady over the last three seasons, ranging between 23 percent and 24.9 percent. He made 33 starts in each of the last two years, surpassing 200 innings and 200 strikeouts both seasons. Last year was easily the best of his career, as he posted a 2.90 ERA, 3.20 FIP and 3.07 xFIP. The best news for prospective fantasy owners is that he didn't lose a step when he moved to the AL from the NL.
The Cubs traded Samardzija to the Athletics on the Fourth of July for a package centered around Addison Russell. That was about 10 days before the All-Star Game, so we can use Samardzija's second-half numbers as nearly the entirely of his AL experience. In the second half last year, Samardzija had a 23.6-percent strikeout rate, 0.97 WHIP, 3.34 FIP and 2.93 xFIP. Each of those numbers, other than his FIP, was better than what he posted in the first half. It may have just been half a season, but Samardzija did not suffer declining performance as so many pitchers do when they join the Junior Circuit.
Add it all up, and Samardzija slots as a strong No. 2 starter in fantasy leagues. We're just starting to work on our rankings for the 2015 season, but you can bet on seeing Samardzija's name somewhere in the low-20s among starting pitchers.
Acquiring Samardzija wasn't the only move the White Sox made on Monday (well, officially on Tuesday). The team also bought a new closer, signing former Yankee David Robertson to a four-year, $46 million deal. Robertson broke out as a first-time closer last year, notching 39 saves in 44 opportunities, and amassing a 3.08 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 2.13 xFIP and 96 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings. His average fastball clocked in at 91.8 mph, but it was his move to a knuckle-curve from a traditional curveball that drove his success last year.
Robertson is moving from one bandbox in New York to another in Chicago, so we can call the change in ballparks a wash. There's no evidence that team wins have any effect over save opportunities. It would follow that a team that wins more games would organically have more save chances, but three of the top five in saves last year — Fernando Rodney, Craig Kimbrel and Francisco Rodriguez — were on teams that missed the playoffs.
In short, the move to Chicago shouldn't have much of an impact on Robertson's fantasy value. Given his success in 2014, which was preceded by two dominant years as a setup man, he deserves to be among the first closers selected in 2015 drafts. Of course, we already know that you don't pay for saves, so he could also double as one of the more overvalued fantasy assets next season.