The Cubs are looking for more starters for 2012. With only Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, and possibly Randy Wells as sure things next season, the Cubs may have two spots to fill. The first hope is that one of them is filled by Andrew Cashner. A healthy Cashner would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the Cubs.
The second spot could be filled by a minor league pitcher such as Chris Rusin, Nick Struck, or Trey McNutt -- but the first two are likely bottom of the rotation starters and McNutt may not be quite ready after a season in which he struggled. Trades and free agency are also an option if the Cubs can find a reasonable deal this offseason.
Then, just when you thought it was safe, the Shark is popping up once again as a starter candidate.
Jeff Samardzija hasn't done very well as a starter in his brief career. Heck, he didn't do particularly well as a reliever either until this year. This season the former Notre Dame wide receiver has finally started to put things together on the pitching mound. Is he now a viable option for the 2012 rotation?
When the Cubs signed Samardzija to a $10.5M major league contract, the expectation was certainly not that he was going to be a middle reliever. They viewed him as a raw pitcher with the talent to become a front line starter. One team official even compared him to John Smoltz at the time. So far he has fallen well short of those expectations, but his breakthrough season warrants him a second look.
Samardzija was nowhere near a polished product when he was drafted. He still had a body built more for football than a major league pitcher. His baseball experience wasn't nearly as extensive and his mechanics had flaws. At the time, he threw between 91-94 mph and had a slider that was hit or miss -- not exactly a recipe for success, but the team's scouts felt like he had a lot of projection left.
The Cubs believed he would eventually operate consistently in the mid 90s. That has actually proven to be the case. He routinely throws in the mid 90s and often touches the upper 90s as a reliever. It's hard to imagine he could throw 97-98 mph as a starter over the course of a game, but 94-95 is certainly feasible. That's more than enough to succeed in the majors.
The slider has also become a more consistent pitch. His command on the slider has improved by leaps and bounds. It always had great velocity (mid 80s) and showed good bite, it's just that now that with improved command we're seeing it as a legitimate strikeout pitch.
That's 2 "out" pitches for the Shark, which makes him a candidate to be more than just a 4th or 5th starter. Another key for any starter is to have a 3rd pitch to fall back when one of the first two just aren't working. That's where Samardzija's split-fingered fastball comes into play. He's used that more than his change-up, which is average and unrefined at best. Recently he has relied much more on the splitter. This gives him a pretty respectable third pitch. In fact, it's been more effective than his fastball this year, ranking second next to his slider in terms of effectiveness. Overall, Samardzija has 4 pitches: A hard sinking fastball, a slider, a cut fastball, and the split finger. The range in velocity goes from an average of 95 mph on his fastball to the mid 80s on his slider and split finger. It gives him a 10 mph differential; That's not exactly elite when it comes to changing speeds, but it's certainly good enough to keep hitters off balance.
Unfortunately, the numbers aren't quite as promising as Samardzija's pure stuff would indicate. The first thing we want to note is his control, which has always been a concern. This year,though, it has gotten better. He has averaged 3.9 walks per 9 innings in the second half which makes him about average, but it's certainly not the control of a top of the rotation starter. His strikeout ratio of 9.1 per 9 innings, however, does indicate front of the rotation stuff. But let's look a little deeper.
Samardzija's FIP this season is respectable at 3.67 but when we look at his xFIP (which normalizes for home run rate) it rises up to a 5th starter-like 4.22. Samardzija has had an exceptional year keeping the ball in the park this season, allowing only 0.54 HRs per 9 innings. He also has a very low BABIP of .247 as opposed to a career average of .277. Additionally, his strand rate is slightly higher this season. So it's certainly possible Samardzija has had more than his share of luck this season. His pedestrian walk rate would have certainly hurt him more if some of those batted balls had fallen as hits.
A guy like Samardzija is difficult to project as a starter because he started out so raw and simply keeps improving. His stuff is much better than it was 5 years ago, as is his command of it. There's no reason to think that it can't get even better.
That BABIP number is awfully low though. Even Smoltz, the pitcher the Cubs compared him to in terms of stuff, had a lifetime BABIP of .283. We can certainly expect that Samardzija will give up a few more hits next year whether it's as a starter or a reliever. His HRs may come up as well, but considering that he keeps the ball down with a hard sinker and his splitter, he's never going to give up a ton of HRs as long as his command is good.
Samardzija needs to make up for the extra hits he's bound to give up by improving his control and cutting down his walks even further -- but it's doubtful he can get it down to Smoltz's level. He was often under 2 BB/9 in his prime. A more realistic upside is our own Ryan Dempster, who also converted from a reliever to a starter. Dempster has average control at 4.11 BB/9 IP for his career and it actually improved as a starter. The Cubs hope that history can repeat itself there with Samardzija.
I certainly think it's worth the gamble. The Cubs have plenty of hard-throwing relievers in their system and none have the 4 pitch repertoire that Samardzija has. At worst he can always return to the bullpen --and at best the Cubs may have themselves another Dempster-like reclamation project.
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