MESA, Ariz. – By the time opposing starters Jeff Samardzija and John Lackey threw their first pitches in Saturday’s spring game between the Giants and Cubs, the results already were in.
Samardzija, the big-armed homegrown pitcher the Cubs once said they hoped to build a contending core around, went 0-for-2 in finding common ground with the Cubs to be part of this high-talent, higher-touted group.
Lackey, the cagier, older right-hander with similarly old-school, hard-nosed views of pitching, instead became the crucial piece the Cubs were able to sign on a short-term, free agent deal to shore up starting pitching depth – a gap in depth created in part by a lack of any suitable homegrown pitchers to fill it.
And if either one has an impact on the other’s October plans this year, they can look back at November when their relationships with the Cubs intersected before they headed to different corners of the National League pennant race.
“Sometimes things don’t work out,” said Samardzija, the northwest Indiana native, whose possibility of returning to the Cubs lasted about as long as his meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein over beers at a Southport pub – shared on social media by another denizen that night last fall.
The Cubs had their eye on big-ticket outfielder Jason Heyward and were only interested in Samardzija on a deal at least as short as Lackey’s two-year, $32 million deal.
This after he and the Cubs failed for more than a year to agree on a long-term deal before he was traded by Epstein to Oakland in the Addison Russell deal.
“I think before it was more of a disagreement on value,” he said. “This was just more of a disagreement on time, just because of where they were with what they wanted for their team and what I was looking for.”
Samardzija, despite a rough season with the White Sox last year, had several long-term offers on the table and eventually signed a five-year, $90-million deal with a Giants team that has won three of the past six World Series – and who might prove as fierce a rival in the NL this year as the Cardinals.
“Obviously, I had admiration for [the Cubs’] program and then everything I went through, being drafted by them and pretty much spending most of my career there,” Samardzija said, “you wanted to have success there. But in the business world, things take different turns and by matters of months things can change.”
Now the guy who made Opening Day starts for the Cubs in 2013 and ’14 could be a key to the Giants pitching depth and their chances for keeping their even-numbered-year streak of championships alive.
“I knew there was a handful of teams that I wanted to be a part of that are perennially in the hunt every year, that were looking for the playoffs, looking for big things,” he said. “And I was just lucky enough that it worked out that I ended up on one of them.”
Of course, if Samardzija becomes a key for getting the Giants back to the World Series, it makes him a key for keeping the Cubs out. Nothing personal.
In fact, the way Samardzija talks, he sounds like he could picture himself playing for Joe Maddon, even if he’s not necessarily a big fan of mimes or magic shows.
“We saw that in Tampa. Just now he’s getting a little bit more coverage,” Samardzija said. “He likes to keep it loose. It’s almost the same approach that Lou [Piniella] had when he was there.”
“Just a little bit different,” he said with a smirk. “He takes the attention off the guys. Now, Lou did a ranting, raving version. And Joe does a fun, laid-back version. Just different ways of getting the same ending.”
Maybe there’s a small part of Samardzija that wishes he’d taken one of those earlier offers from the Cubs and been part of this exciting young Cubs team.
“I wish I would have gotten in on Google [stock] a decade earlier, too,” he said. “Hindsight’s 20-20. At the time, in the moment, you’ve got to make decisions based on the information you have.”
One of the results of betting on himself throughout that original process and then into free agency is that Samardzija is in position to have the kind of impact on the Giants that could leave the Cubs wishing they’d done more to keep him.
If he gets that playoff start he has waited his career for, he might even wind up in another matchup like Saturday’s, but at night and on a colder, louder, brighter, electrifying, high-stakes stage in October.
“That’d be cool, man,” he said.
Samardzija, 31, is confident his 4.95-ERA season with the White Sox last year was more of a career aberration, and that his final two, strong starts against Detroit and Kansas City more the tone setters for this season.
“We got behind the eight ball early, and after that it was just kind of like a game of catch-up,” he said. “And in this game, it’s tough to play catch-up. You put a little bit of pressure on yourself, you start changing things. I couldn’t really get any rhythm going, and it seemed like when I did, it changed. Just a tough year.”
Samardzija, who still makes his home much of the year near family in Valparaiso, doesn’t rule out another shot with the Cubs if the stars – and terms – align some day.
“There were no bridges burned, no feeling’s hurt,” he said. “I’m a business dude. If the business situation’s right, then anything’s possible.”