Give Mark Kiszla credit; the guy always seems to find a unique angle for a compelling story.
Yesterday, the longtime Denver Post journalist penned a column suggesting that the Colorado Rockies do what most fans would find unthinkable: deal former first round draft pick and top pitching prospect Jon Gray to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for breakout staff ace Jeff Samardzija.
His reasoning is twofold: First, to pay off the patience of the core of your team (particularly Troy Tulowitzki, who is the best player in baseball right now) at a moment when they truly believe they can compete. And second, with the number of veterans on the roster under sizable contracts (by Rockies standards), it’s tough to buy the notion that the time to win is not immediate and therefore the team needs to start acting like a contender.
Reaction to the piece has been decidedly negative, but the idea of trading for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in season is unprecedented for the Rockies, so it certainly merits further discussion. I love a good trade topic, so let’s get started, shall we?
It should be noted that this trade absolutely will not happen. Colorado’s front office has been vehement over the years that they will not part with top prospects to fill immediate needs. It’s been proven over and over again in the way the club does business, and then reiterated to every beat writer ad nauseum to make sure we get the point.
But as Kiz would certainly tell you, just because something won’t happen doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. To address that side of things, there are three huge caveats to this hypothetical trade that must be noted.
Samardzija is not actually a true ace
The proposed return for Jon Gray wasn’t picked out of a hat. Jeff Samardzija’s name is out there because he has had an exceptional start to the 2014 season on a team that cannot seem to buy him a win. To wit, 0-3 in eight starts with a 1.45 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 45 strikeouts in 56 innings.
For that reason alone, this trade makes perfect sense… for the Cubs. Chicago’s north side franchise is in disarray this season, and as such they would almost certainly be interested in parlaying a pitcher at the peak of his value into a top prospect that will be able to help out at a point in the future when the club is better equipped to compete.
But what about the Rockies? What are they really trading for? Sure Samardzija’s numbers look great this season, but he still has three-quarters of his 2014 starts ahead of him, and previous seasons don’t exactly support the notion that he’ll be able to keep up this pace.
Up until 2014 Samardzija only had two full seasons starting in the big leagues. Prior to that, most of his big league experience had come working out of the bullpen. What did those two seasons look like? A 4.10 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 388.1 innings with 394 strikeouts.
Those stats are nothing to scoff at, but his ERA and WHIP are hardly ‘ace’ material. In fact, Samardzija’s 4.34 ERA in 2013 would have only had the fourth lowest ERA among Rockies starters.
Furthermore, the peripheral numbers suggest that Samardzija is probably a lot closer to his 2013 iteration than his numbers currently state. Specifically, he currently owns a .261 BABIP against .294 lifetime and is stranding 84.2-percent of baserunners compared to 72-percent career average. Plus, he is putting up these gaudy numbers despite a decreased swinging strike rate and suppressed home run numbers that it’s hard to see translating to Coors Field.
While the number that will make most people drool are his strikeouts, the Rockies might not be so impressed with those either. But more on that later. Suffice to say that Samardzija may be a proven commodity, but he’s not exactly the pitcher the Cubs are currently advertising.
Samardzija will never, ever re-sign in Denver after 2015
Let’s get one thing straight; I do not, nor have I ever bought the notion that the Rockies will never be able to attract a marquee free agent pitcher. A couple more seasons of solid home ERAs out of Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood and/or anyone else will eventually put the nightmares of pre-humidor Coors Field to rest for good. So this is not some media cop-out being used to cry "woe is us, no one will ever be able to pitch well at Coors Field."
What needs to be understood about Samardzija is that he comes from a union family. His father was part of a union for 30 years, he has been vocal in his support for the Northwestern football team’s unionization efforts and he has stated publicly that he feels a sense of responsibility inside the Major League Baseball Players Association to not give up post-arbitration years and to sign for as much as he possibly can, to set the bar for future generations of ballplayers.
Unfortunately, that will price the Rockies out of the market for his services. In a very literal sense, it makes this hypothetical trade Jon Gray for one-and-a-half years of Jeff Samardzija.
Samardzija does not fit the Rockies profile of an effective Coors Field starter
For better or for worse, Colorado has very specific criteria that they expect out of their pitchers, particularly starters.
First and foremost among that criteria is pitching to contact. Everything the club does is geared towards that. The 75-pitch limit of 2012. The hard 100-pitch limit of 2013. They even put a premium on infield defense, more so than any other team in the majors. It all adds up to pitching to contact. Jeff Samardzija does not do that.
Samardzija is a strikeout pitcher through and through. That means more pitches, and indeed, he averages more pitches per start than any Rockies starter either this season or last.
In all likelihood, Samardzija would either be asked to pitch to contact, suppressing his ability to do what he does best, or he would be pulled from games after fewer pitches, suppressing his ability to eat innings and thus lowering the value he brings in the return for Jon Gray.
Getting back whether the Rockies should or should not pull the trigger on this potential trade, to me the answer seems pretty clear. To deal a prospect like Jon Gray, you have to feel like you’re getting a sure-thing in return. Jeff Samardzija just feels like a little too much of a gamble in terms of his long term (as long term as you’re getting him for, that is) value.
This is not to say that Colorado should not be making moves to improve their roster. Quite the contrary, I just finished a column for Milehighsports.com imploring the Rockies to be more proactive about their obvious team needs. But dealing Gray, especially based on the month-long performance of an otherwise rather middling starter, is desperate. Too desperate for my taste.