SAN FRANCISCO – Like a shark fin breaking the water, Jeff Samardzija’s name is surfacing in trade talk ahead of Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. The Giants, so viciously brought to heel by the rest of the league this season, must be open to listening.
So what to make of Samardzija’s clean and impressive start against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Wednesday afternoon’s 2-1 victory at AT&T Park?
Is he more likely to be dealt because a contender will meet the Giants’ asking price and needs? Or does it make Samardzija easier to envision as part of a revitalized rotation that could lead the 2018 turnaround that Giants ownership has tasked of the front office?
Things went sideways so fast for the Giants this season, and they are in such an unfamiliar position at the trade deadline, it’s hard to know which way is up.
It’s still much more likely that the Giants will make trinkets-level deals to find homes for usable players like catcher Nick Hundley or a reliever such as George Kontos, or to flush their clubhouse of Hunter Strickland. Those players don’t have salary entanglements beyond this season.
Samardzija does. He is due $18 million over each of the next three seasons, and a start like Wednesday’s seven-inning performance – along with one of the most predictably durable track records in the game – reminds you that he is far from a sunk cost.
And besides, Samardzija made it clear after Wednesday’s victory that he wants to stay with the Giants. That is no small thing when he can block deals to all but eight teams. (Find the list here.)
Asked about whether he listens to trade chatter, Samardzija all but dismissed the possibility.
“I wasn’t in any trade talks,” he said. “Maybe some people (are) using my name for value and trying to strong-arm other teams to get a better deal for what they want. But I love being here.
“Obviously it hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to, which has put some people in some trade talks. But we also know that we have a great core of guys here (and) as long as we do our jobs and have confidence and momentum and excitement, we’re going to do really well.”
Samardzija made it clear that if the Giants present him with a trade to a club that required his approval, he would not even be interested in listening. (The Houston Astros, who have been rumored to be scouting him, are among the teams he can veto.) He wants to stay, and echoed other members of their veteran core by expressing confidence that their fortunes could be radically different next season.
“I love being here,” he said.
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The Giants made a winner of Samardzija (5-11) when they pushed ahead in the seventh. Miguel Gomez lined a pinch double, advanced on a sacrifice and scored when Brandon Belt dunked a double into a sunny left field corner that blinded the Pirates’ Starling Marte.
It was the kind of break the Giants haven’t received too often this season – especially on Samardzija’s day. He entered with a 5.05 ERA and has allowed home runs in bunches lately, but he won for the first time in four starts while holding the Pirates to a run on four hits in seven innings.
He struck out eight and contributed two athletic plays that hearkened to his days as a standout wide receiver, including a barehand grab of a chopper and throw to record a forceout at the plate.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy called Samardzija’s grab and throw “one of the better plays I’ve seen a pitcher make.”
Samardzija has had better seasons. But Bochy still lauded the value of a pitcher who takes the ball every fifth day and offers a full days’ work, often saving the bullpen even on days when he takes some lumps.
“I know that sounds like it’s not important, but it is,” Bochy said. “He’s a horse you can ride. Now, his bad games are not pretty games, and even his good ones, he can get popped for a home run so that makes it hard to (square up) the ERA. But it’s about the body of work and the innings they give you. As a starter, he can’t control wins, but you can control how many times he gives you a chance to win, and I think he’s done that quite often.”
If the Giants hope to return to contention next season, they cannot spend the year hungry for innings. A solid rotation is the surest path to stability. So it is hard to imagine the Giants trading Samardzija now, especially when they could find themselves down another workhorse if Johnny Cueto were to opt out of his deal at the end of the season.
Setting aside Cueto’s disappointing season and his recurring blister issues, it would only take a handful of strong starts in September to give Cueto the momentum and belief that he could improve on the remainder of his contract (four years, $84 million) on the open market.
Giants GM Bobby Evans was vague and evasive when asked if it is realistic to expect any of his players signed to multiyear contracts to be moved in the coming days.
“It’s hard to speculate,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of different ideas being discussed but it’s hard to speculate on a landing spot for any one guy. We have to have something compelling to make a deal.”
Evans said he is under no directive from ownership to purge payroll, even though the Giants have more money committed in 2019 (more than $100 million) than any other team. They continue to pursue deals that will bring them major league talent, and not salary relief.
“The expectation is to get ourselves in position where we can move forward in 2018 to get ourselves more competitive and hopefully back to winning baseball,” Evans said. “Everybody understands realistically what a climb that is from where we are. We’re not naïve to the struggles we’ve had. We’ve got to figure out how to best address them. No one is saying it’s going to be an overnight fix. It’s going to take time but our hope is to shorten that length of time because of what we do between now and the start of spring training.”
Evans made it clear that there will be more opportunities in the winter, when every club is looking to improve rather than just a handful of contenders – a list of buyers that is slimmer than usual this season, given the way the top five teams have pulled away in the National League.
Asked about the dichotomy of the front office’s stated confidence in the team’s core players along with their openness to deal, Evans said: “We believe in our core and we want to protect our core, but we also have a very large core. So there could be some opportunities that we have to take advantage of. It’s too early to say right now.”
Strickland and Sam Dyson each threw shutout innings, with Dyson recording his sixth save as the Giants won two of three in the series to complete a 5-5 homestand.
Given the way things have gone this season, they’ll take it.