The National League all-stars strode from the third base dugout to center field at Target Field for the team picture, a wave of players decked out in their teams’ crisp road grays, except for one of them. Jeff Samardzija wore a blue batting practice jersey, because for the all-star break, he is a man without a team.
“I think I’m like a baseball ambassador,” Samardzija said.
Samardzija earned his way onto the National League team as the ace of the Chicago Cubs’ staff. On the night before teams were announced, the Cubs dealt him to the Oakland A’s, who of course play in the American League. Samardzija dressed in the NL clubhouse and took the team photo with the NL. He will be in the AL dugout. He will not pitch. He will root hard for the AL. A victory would give the A’s home-field advantage should they reach the World Series.
“I absolutely want the American League to win,” Samardzija said.
Samardzija ended up in the precarious spot after more than a year of trade rumors, rumors the Nationals became involved in briefly. At the trade deadline last year, the Nationals felt out the Cubs about Samardzija. Earlier in the winter, they checked again. The Cubs let them know it would take Lucas Giolito and another top-shelf prospect. The Nationals shifted their focus and eventually landed Doug Fister, which has worked out.
Samardzija had no control over the trade process, but he kept abreast of the Cubs’ plans, and he heard about the Nationals’ interest.
“They were definitely on my list of pros,” Samardzija said. “When this whole process starts, you kind of make a list of pros and cons of which teams you’d enjoy going to. Washington, with that great park they have, [Ian] Desmond at short is one of my favorite guys to watch over there. Their lineup top to bottom is outstanding. I love watching [Jayson] Werth out there. Really, there’s no holes. You got a couple great catchers, too. They were definitely on my list. If they were going to get mentioned, I wasn’t going to be upset about it.”
The Cubs recently played the Nationals seven times in the span of two weeks. Samardzija was impressed again. With zero prompting, their success and a potential playoff run brought Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown in 2012 to his mind.
“I’ve liked the Nationals the past couple years,” Samardzija said. “I was a little bummed when Strasburg couldn’t pitch. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, man. I would have loved to see how he would pitch in the fall. It probably would have been really electric. Hopefully he gets a chance to do that again.”
Samardzija could relate. In 2012, Samardzija moved from the bullpen to the rotation, and the Cubs limited his innings. Unlike the Nationals’ plan with Strasburg, the Cubs stretched Samardzija’s starts so he could last all season. When an off day arose, Samardzija skipped his turn and rolled back to the end of the rotation.
The Nationals did not do the same with Strasburg because they believed changing his routine would add injury risk and decrease his effectiveness. Samardzija had no injury, which made his situation different. But he felt no detriment to skipping starts to pitch deeper into the year. The Cubs eventually shut him down at 178 innings, when they were out of the playoff race.
“I felt great,” Samardzija said. “I could have kept pitching. If we would have been in the playoff hunt, it probably would have been a little different. I felt great in September.”