Jeff Samardzija, a David Price/Max Scherzer alternative for the Nationals

Greetings from the JW Marriott Grande Lakes in Orlando, where for the next two nights befuddled vacationers will wonder what the heck is going on at the lobby bar. The annual General Managers and owners meetings begin here today. Officially, the GMs flock here to give their input on competitive matters, such as instant replay and collisions at home plate. Unofficially, they meet with agents and discuss trades and, while big deals are seldom consummated at the GM Meetings, lay groundwork for the action to come.

With the task of a hiring a manager behind him, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo will start to implement the Nationals’ offseason plan. Their obvious needs are upgrades to the bullpen and bench. But the bigger story is how they will add to their rotation, the area in which they have made three big splashes (Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren) the past two winters.

 


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Nationals’ ability and apparent desire to trade for a starting pitcher this winter is well-established. While David Price and Max Scherzer have sparked the brunt of the speculation surrounding a Nationals’ possible deal for a starter, the Nationals are expected to also discuss Cubs’ right-hander Jeff Samardzija, according to a person familiar with the Nationals’ thinking.

Samardzija, known also from his days as a Notre Dame wide receiver, would be a lesser name but possibly a prudent alternative. Scherzer has only one year remaining before he reaches free agency, and many around the league doubt whether the spend-big, win-now Tigers would really trade him, anyway.  Samardzija would come far cheaper than Price and, even if he’s not in Price’s league in terms of ability, may pose less of a risk.

Samardzija will become a free agent after the 2015 season, and so the Cubs would likely listen to any offers. Earlier this offseason, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported Chicago and the Diamondbacks have been discussing a deal for Samardzija. In short, he’s available.

Samardzija is coming off a down year in which he went 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA, but those numbers may be deceiving. His 3.77 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 3.45 xFIP suggest he pitched better than his ERA shows.  He struck out 9.0 batters per nine innings, which ranked 12th in the majors. He also fits into the big, hard-throwing mold Rizzo likes in his pitchers: 6-foot-5 with a 94.5 mile-per-hour fastball on average, sixth in the majors last year.

Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, may be the best pitcher in the game and has been a workhorse in Tampa. Still, Samardzjia may be the safer health bet going forward. Samardzjia is a tad older – Samardzjia will be 29 in January, and Price will turn 28 next August – but because Samardzjia spent a couple seasons as a reliever, he has less wear on his arm than Price. Despite being drafted a year earlier, Samardzija has thrown 120 fewer professional innings.

Samardzija has less wear on his arm, which in 2013 appeared to be livelier than Price’s. Price’s average fastball dropped from 95.5 miles per hour in 2012 to 93.5 last season. His strikeout rate decreased from 8.7 per nine innings to 7.3, and his hits allowed rose from 7.4 per nine innings to 8.6. His ability to thrive in the strike zone exceeded any pitcher in the majors, evidenced by his league-leading 1.3 walks per nine innings, which allowed the number of base runners he allowed to remain steady. But his fastball lost some life, and batters found him easier to hit.

Price also confronted an injury concern for the first time in his career. He missed six weeks on the disabled list with a strained left triceps. Once he returned July 2, Price showed no ill effects. He averaged 7.3 innings over his final 18 starts as he struck out 102 and walked 13, giving up 113 hits in 131 2/3 innings.

One evaluator described Price more of a No. 2 starter than a No. 1 going forward. That seems a little extreme and certainly is not the consensus, but that sentiment is out there.

Price pitched in an ideal environment, no matter Tampa’s low budget. The Rays ranks among the game’s best at developing pitchers and in Joe Maddon employ one of the league’s best managers. His primary catcher, Jose Molina, might be the best pitch-framer in baseball. The Rays played dazzling defense with aggressive shifts. In an intangible sense, it would be hard imagine how Price would benefit from new surroundings.

It would be hard to imagine how Samardzija would not. He pitched in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field for a rebuilding team. Samardzija carried the largest burden in a circus atmosphere in Chicago, for a manager whom the team fired at year’s end for his shortcomings in improving young players. After one start this year, Samardzija yelled at the Cubs’ infield coach.

This is not to suggest that Price is not great, or that he would not be better than Samardzija for the foreseeable future. But obtaining Price would mean decimating your farm system, and acquiring Samardzija would only require a dent. (As a secondary consideration, Samardzija will make about $8 million less than Price in 2014.)

Samardzija may represent a better value than he appears on the surface, just as Price may carry more of a risk than one would assume. If the Nationals want win right now, at any cost and with little regard for the future, they should pursue Price. If they want to mitigate risk and protect future assets, Samardzjia would be a compelling alternative.

So that’s one thing to chew on. We’ll have intermittent updates over the course of the day when we have some information or speculation or informed speculation to pass along. Rizzo, like all 30 general managers, will be available to reporters later on today. If you missed it yesterday, here’s our story from yesterday’s Post on the growing trend of first-year managers.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

sports

nationals-journal

Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Comments
Show Comments
Next Story
James Wagner · November 10, 2013