OAKLAND – Sitting in a clubhouse that has hosted more raw sewage than playoff celebrations during his career, Jeff Samardzija can finally breathe.
“It’s fun, man. It’s great,” the former Cubs pitcher says of the new surroundings in Oakland. “It’s exciting.”
If that says something about the pennant race he suddenly joined and the motley-looking group of young A’s teammates who quickly embraced their new ace, it almost certainly says something, too, about the bittersweet parting from his hometown Cubs and the chance to put the losing and the contract drama behind him.
“Anytime you get traded it puts a chip on your shoulder when you’re not wanted in a certain aspect, for whatever reason it is,” says Samardzija, who makes his fourth start Thursday since he and Jason Hammel were traded to the Athletics for prospects July 4. “It definitely puts you in a spot where you want to prove something.”
That’s not his driving force when he pitches these days, he says. Pitching meaningful games for the best team in baseball is enough incentive.
“And I don’t have any hard feelings,” he says.
But the trade of the powerful, homegrown pitcher 15 months ahead of free agency was a watershed moment for both the Cubs’ rebuilding process under a third-year front office and for Samardzija’s burgeoning career as a frontline starter – including a first All-Star selection less than 48 hours after the trade.
For the Cubs, he was the building-block pitcher they wanted to keep, but only at team-friendly terms as they eyed 2016 for the start of the competitive turnaround – staying well behind his fast-rising market value in often vague contract talks the past year.
Team president Theo Epstein said after the trade that the Cubs have a plan for acquiring the high-level starting pitching they didn’t get in the Samardzija-Hammel deal. It probably will involve using money siphoned from unused 2014 payroll to buy some – maybe even overpay for somebody.
Regardless, it puts the Cubs on the clock to start showing results over the next year, both on the baseball and business side of this third-year plan.
For Samardzija, the trade was tough to swallow if only because he wanted to stay in Chicago – “that was the hardest part of the whole process” – and because he held out hope to have that last year of club control to decide whether he believed enough in the Cubs’ competitive timeline to soften his position.
Epstein calls it “fair to say we were close [on extension talks] just because there was mutual interest.” But even he doesn’t suggest numbers or value perceptions ever got close.
“The thing about it was the whole time it was obvious what it would take to get into serious talks, and it just never got there,” Samardzija says. “You can describe that however you want. As a player there’s not really too much you can do [without being a free agent]. …
“There was an idea what it would take. It was a timing thing. The pros to signing me and the cons to signing me — there’s different things that people put a lot of belief into. Apparently, they didn’t add up to keeping me around.”
Epstein also suggested unfortunate timing played a role as the Cubs weighed the chance to sell Samardzija at highest trade value with more than a year of control left.
Neither side has closed the door on a possible reunion when Samardzija reaches free agency, just as the Cubs project they’ll have resources to make a splash.
But conversations with nearly a dozen sources close to both sides suggest that’s at least a long shot if Samardzija keeps pitching like the $100-million, high-demand pitcher he is now.
“I love Chicago, man. I love being there,” the Northwest Indiana native says. “And I’m open to it. But when you’re a free agent, anybody can sign you. So you’ve got to compete with all the other 29 teams in the league, and anything can happen.
“Obviously, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but I don’t have any hard feelings, and I wish them the best, especially all my buddies who are still on the team.”
Samardzija, who is even less likely to sign any kind of extension with the small-revenue A’s, says he’s putting all those Cub issues behind him now as he plays a major role in a pennant race for the first time in his career – creating a renewed vigor that even new teammates seem to notice.
“When you get a chance to be on a team that’s winning a lot more than they’re losing, it’s just going to spark an energy,” says A’s infielder Nick Punto, who has played for six clubs, including playing teams two of the last three years. “I can definitely see that in Samardzija.”
Samardzija says the high stakes have made it easy to maintain high energy and intensity, and teammates in a loose, confident clubhouse have made it easy to get comfortable quickly.
“He’s got the Oakland look down. That’s what was pretty relevant from the start,” says long-haired A’s catcher Derek Norris through his Duck Dynasty beard. “He fits in great.”
The rest of it is just about living up to a reputation he was building in Chicago of elevating his game when the stakes are raised.
“You want to prove to yourself all those things you say,” Samardzija says. “I’ve been pretty vocal about saying I like to pitch in big games and this and that. And you just want to prove that. You don’t want to be just blowing hot air.”
Bigger than that might be producing for a team that aggressively went after him and then put him at the front of the rotation coming out of the All-Star break.
“Coming into a team where they’ve made the playoffs two years in a row and have postseason experience, you want to just gel as fast as possible and prove to them that you can pitch in those big games,” he says, “so, hopefully, when it does come crunch time in October, there’s no second thoughts about, `Are we going to use this guy?’ or `How are we going to use this guy?’ ”
Whether the Cubs will rue his departure may depend on whether they win their long-shot bet to re-sign him as a free agent. Or how quickly, within their means, they can acquire more frontline pitching to complement the highly touted hitting prospects on the verge of big-league debuts.
To that end, the front office was sure to keep things as amicable as possible throughout a process that was no fun for Samardzija. Epstein has consistently praised Samardzija’s qualities on and off the field and, like Samardzija, says “no hard feelings” are left behind.
But the rebuilding process itself was a major factor in undermining the process of getting Samardzija to agree to an extension – which he admits would have seemed more palatable at a discount (and without a no-trade clause) if there was a more urgent sense of trying to win.
“Yeah, there’s give and take. There’s a sliding scale as a player,” he says. “You look at your team situation, and if you’re a perennial playoff team, odds are you’re signing, and negotiations probably aren’t very important. But eventually you have to decide, is that what you want? Is that where you want to be?
“For me, I really wasn’t putting too much into it strictly because I wasn’t a free agent at the end of this year. I still felt like I had some time to figure out what I wanted to do and the direction the team was going. And then, obviously, that was taken from me once I got traded, and I don’t need to think about that anymore.
“I just thought I had more time to feel it out and hopefully get something done in the future. But obviously it didn’t happen.”
The Cubs will always be able to find free agents who want to play at Wrigley Field and in Chicago. But even team officials admit that they might have a harder sell with some of the premier players they may target until the rebuilding process starts bearing results.
“I think the best way to get anyone to sign is to show and have a winning mentality. Right now,” Samardzija said. “That’s the most important thing, to show these guys that are in your locker room that, `We’re doing everything we can to win games this year and right now.’
“And if that’s not the case, then guys that are close to free agency and things like that, you start to wonder what is going on and what the best situation for myself is.
“That’s not my position to question it. They’re in the position to make those decisions, and when it’s all said and done, then you go back and judge on how those decisions worked. And if they were good or if they were bad.”