Giants overpay for Samardzija, banking on consistency in rotation
The Winter Meetings don't start until Monday, but the free agent pitching dominoes continue to fall in advance. Less than 24 hours after losing out on Zack Greinke, the Giants landed Jeff Samardzija via a five-year, $90 million deal. While not in the same class as Greinke performance-wise, the 30-year-old righty is just one year removed from his lone All-Star season. At the very least, he'll help bulk up a rotation that's in desperate need of an overhaul and should benefit greatly from moving to a more pitcher-friendly park, though his price tag means that the Giants are betting heavily on a return to his 2014 form.
Samardzija, who turns 31 in January, does not have career numbers that jump off the page as those of a pitcher who received a contract just short of nine figures. He owns a career 4.09 ERA (96 ERA+) and a 3.84 FIP, with a 47-61 won-loss record that owes plenty to inferior offensive support, as he's received an average of 3.8 runs per game where 4.4 has been league average. He has been worth more than 2.0 Wins Above Replacement—roughly average for a full-season starter— only in 2014, when he was worth 3.7 WAR while pitching to a 2.99 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 219 2/3 innings for the Cubs and A’s. He spent the 2015 season with the White Sox, who acquired him from the A's in a six-player deal last December. Though he made 32 starts and threw 214 innings (fifth in the league), he was battered for a 4.96 ERA, not only a career worst but the majors' third-highest among qualified starters, that while yielding AL highs of 228 hits and 29 homers en route to 0.2 WAR.
Samardzija struggled while pitching in US Cellular Field, serving up a 5.33 ERA and 1.5 homers per nine, compared to a 4.61 ERA and 1.0 homers per nine on the road, and he was dreadful over the final two month of the season, getting cuffed for a 7.26 ERA and 1.9 HR/9 over his final 11 starts even while throwing a one-hit shutout against the Tigers in his second-to-last start; prior to that stretch, he pitched to a 3.94 ERA and 0.9 HR/9. While he didn't issue many walks (just 2.1 per nine), his strikeout rate fell from 8.6 per nine in 2014 to 6.9 per nine. In all, it was a precipitous decline from Samardzija's 2014 season, with an ERA nearly two runs higher and a 4.23 FIP, more than a run higher.
Chosen by Chicago in the fifth round of the 2006 draft out of Notre Dame, where he was an All-American wide receiver, Samardzija had spent his entire major league career with the Cubs prior to being dealt to Oakland in 2014. After spending parts of three seasons (2008-2010) bouncing between the minors and majors, he stuck for good as a reliever in 2011 and developed into a solid if occasionally erratic mid-rotation starter in 2012-2013. Given his hot start in 2014, the rebuilding Cubs jumped at the chance to deal him and Jason Hammel to the A's in a five-player deal for pitcher Dan Straily and prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell, the last of whom emerged as the Cubs' starting shortstop in 2015. Oddly enough, while that trade happened 10 days before the All-Star Game, Samardzija had to don a generic NL uniform for the game, yet was ineligible to play because of the deal.
The Cubs and A's dealt Samardzija because they could not see retaining him via a long-term deal that was expected to reach $100 million. Interestingly enough, on Friday Chicago was reported to have shown interest in a reunion, and the Cardinals and Dodgers were said to be suitors as well. Though Samardzija's value took a hit given his 2015 performance, his agents claimed to have a $100 million offer on the table from an unspecified team, though obviously, he wound up with less. Even $90 million was too rich for the Cubs' tastes, as they opted instead to sign John Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal.
The Giants were prepared to spend far more than $90 million on Greinke, though it's not clear if they were willing to go higher than the five-year, $155 million offer that the Dodgers reportedly made to him. Ultimately, the 32-year-old righty shocked the baseball world by spurning both archrivals to sign a six-year, $206.5 million deal with yet another NL West team, the Diamondbacks, on Friday.
With or without Greinke, rebuilding the rotation is the top priority for the Giants this winter after the team slipped to an 84-78 record and a distant second place finish in the NL West on the heels of their third championship in a five-year span. The rotation as a whole ranked seventh in the league in ERA (3.95), eighth in FIP (4.04), ninth in innings (939 1/3) and 11th in strikeout rate (7.0 per nine). Madison Bumgarner and Chris Heston were the team's only pitchers to make more than 22 starts, and the latter's 3.95 ERA translated to just a 95 ERA+ given the context of pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Jake Peavy pitched to a respectable 3.58 ERA but made just 19 starts due to a lower back strain, while Matt Cain, who underwent surgeries to remove bone chips in his elbow and bone spurs in his right ankle in 2014, was roughed up for a 5.79 ERA while making just 11 starts due to a flexor tendon injury. After the season, Tim Hudson retired, while Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong both reached free agency; that trio made $34 million while combining for a 4.46 ERA and a net 0.2 WAR in 59 starts and 13 relief appearances. Mike Leake, acquired just prior to the July 31 trade deadline, hit free agency as well, and Yusmeiro Petit, who made just one start in 2015 but 19 in 2013-2014, was nontendered earlier this past week.
What Samardzija brings to that prospective starting five alongside Bumgarner, Peavy, Heston and a hopefully healthy Cain isn't flash but a reasonable amount of certainty, as he's averaged 206 innings per year over the past four and 216 per year over the last three, and has never landed on the disabled list. Not only has he shown durability, but his gridiron past and his years as a reliever have put less mileage on his arm than other pitchers who are the same age and even some who are younger. For example, his 1,477 professional innings are considerably less than David Price's 1,596, Johnny Cueto's 1,791 and Yovani Gallardo's 1,870, to pick three free agent pitchers who are roughly a year younger, entering their age-30 seasons.
Still, he didn't come cheap. Samardzija's average annual value of $18 million is currently the 15th-highest among pitchers—though it will fall at least a bit further as the winter progresses—and second on staff behind Cain's $21.25 million per year through 2017. Via the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman, Samardzija will make $9 million in salary plus a $3 million signing bonus for 2016, with another $6 million in signing bonus money spread out atop $18 million annual salaries over the remaining four seasons. He also gets a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block deals to eight teams per year. Because he was issued a qualifying offer, the Giants will have to surrender their first round pick, which would have been the 18th of the draft. Had the team re-signed Leake, or signed Price or Cueto (the latter two at at higher prices, obviously), they wouldn't have carried that additional cost, as midseason trades prevented them from receiving qualifying offers.
Retrofitting Samardzija's deal into our What's He Really Worth system, which uses estimates of the market cost of a win ($6.5 million in 2015), annual inflation (5.4%) and an aging curve, it appears that the Giants must really have the rose-tinted glasses when agreeing to this deal. Via Samradzija's inconsistent 2013 and 2015 seasons sandwiching a strong 2014, a 5/4/3 weighted projection for his 2016 value comes in at just 1.6 WAR. Even with a gentle age-related decline of 0.4 WAR per year and a 5.4 percent rate of inflation, those assumptions yield a projection of just $29 million and 4.0 WAR worth of value over the five-year span. To get to $90 million worth of value over the next five seasons under the same parameters would require the assumption that he's worth 3.2 WAR in 2016—slightly less than his best year, but still better than his second-best— and delivers 12.0 WAR over the life of the deal.
Can he get there? Obviously, the Giants have enough confidence that the combination of his raw stuff and the team's coaching staff can bridge the gap between his recent performance and his potential. Via the Bay Area News Group's Andrew Baggarly, Samardzija's average fastball velocity of 94.3 mph ranked 12th among MLB starters, and his ability to sustain that velocity late in the game particularly appealed to the Giants. Baggarly: "Giants officials believe that pitching coach Dave Righetti, bullpen coach Mark Gardner, vice president Dick Tidrow and manager Bruce Bochy can make a similar impact on Samardzija" as the team did on Jason Schmidt, who flourished into an All-Star after the Giants acquired him from the Pirates back in 2001 by adding a splitter. Samardzija does throw a splitter and a cutter in addition to a slider and four- and two-seam fastballs; for him, it's more a matter of honing his existing repertoire so that he gets more swings and misses while giving up less hard contact. AT&T Park will help, as batters hit an MLB-low 109 homers there in 2015 compared to 157 at US Cellular.
Like any contract, Samardzija's deal contains an element of sticker shock, but Giants, who entered 2015 with a $173 payroll and have shed $55 million in free-agent salaries, are on firm financial footing that's going to get even stronger thanks to the passage of Proposition D on election day last month. That allows the team to develop a high-rise district across from McCovey Cove, via something called the Mission Rock proposal. The smaller commitment to Samardzija, $16 million per year less than Greinke, leaves open the possibility that the team could sign a big bat for the outfield such as Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, or more likely a mid-priced free agent such as Ben Zobrist or Dexter Fowler.
Still, there’s no denying the Giants have taken a significant risk by betting on Samardzija’s rebound and improvement. It will be a testament to their organization’s scouting and instruction capabilities if he lives up to the deal.