Shark Spotting: Jeff Samardzija in the Cubs’ Rotation

I have to confess, the Cubs’ decision to move Jeff Samardzija into the rotation puzzles me a little bit. I certainly understand that if a pitcher is equally effective in the rotation and in the bullpen, they have more value and a greater impact in the rotation, but the number of pitchers who can actually pitch equally well in both situations is relatively small and may or may not include the Shark.

It isn’t as though the Cubs are dying for a starter, quite the opposite in fact. Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster are locked in at the top and returning from an injury-shortened 2011 is Randy Wells. The departure of both Carlos Zambrano and Sean Marshall netted the team Chris Volstad and Travis Wood respectively, and Paul Maholm arrived after being thrown overboard by the Pirates. That gives the team six players with starting experience even before Samardzija is added to the mix.

If the Cubs are thin anywhere, it may well be at the back of the bullpen. Marshall is gone from his set-up role and Carlos Marmol is alternating between nagging injuries and ineffectiveness this spring. Kerry Wood returned to the team, but as of right now, both he and Marmol will be gone after next season. The Cubs certainly have time to patch those holes, but looking at the success of Glen Perkins in Minnesota, I can’t help but wonder if Samardzija should be working on his high-leverage situations instead of stretching out for a starting role.

Like Samardzija, Perkins was a starter in college, but unlike Samardzija, he was a damn good one. Where Samardzija posted a 1.33 WHIP, a 3.82 ERA, and a 5.95 K/9 at Notre Dame, Perkins dominated hitters for the University of Minnesota with a 1.08 WHIP, a 2.87 ERA, and a 9.55 K/9. Both pitchers were somewhat less impressive as a starter in the minors, and both found their stride last year in the majors as a reliever. Perkins took over the Twins’ 8th inning and was by far the team’s best reliever; Samardzija did most of his work in the 7th inning and held opposing hitters to a .600 OPS from the 7th inning on. Perkins will return to the Twins’ bullpen and could get a shot at closing if Matt Capps struggles again, but the Cubs believe that Samardzija will be able to maintain his effectiveness in the rotation.

Neither of my preferred projection systems — ZiPS and Steamer — projected Samardzija as a starter, which makes guessing how he’ll perform in that role in the majors a little more difficult. His spring numbers have been great, there is no disputing a 0.60 WHIP and nine strikeouts in 10 IP, but it’s coming in just three appearances, to say nothing of the fact that it’s spring training. I’m willing to bet that his WHIP will be a tick higher and his strikeouts a tick lower, but beyond that, he’s almost tabula rasa.

Working in Shark’s favor are reports of good velocity and a vote of confidence — a real vote of confidence, not the kind managers get 10 days before the owner cans them — from GM Jed Hoyer. His minor league track record as a starter is checkered at best, but if he can make the kind of changes Hoyer seems to think he’s made stick, the only question is whether he can make them stick for six innings at a time.

Echoing a refrain I’ve been singing all offseason, for mixed players there’s just too much pitching depth to take on this kind of risk. His upside in the rotation would seem to be in the neighborhood of a 1.25 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, and an ERA in the 3.50 range, and while that’s certainly playable, I think his actual performance won’t be that good. For NL-only players, especially in deeper leagues, the fact that Samardzija has upside left and will be on the big league roster makes him more appealing to me than someone like Joe Blanton or Joe Saunders.

One last factor to consider is that he has secondary value in Holds leagues. I don’t see him unseating Marmol, but if the rotation doesn’t work out the way the Cubs hope it will, Samardzija will probably return to a set-up role and pick up a solid amount of holds. The hope, of course, isn’t that Samardzija will return to that role — put another way, I wouldn’t grab him for his potential holds alone — but it does act as a hedge against the pick being a total bust.

I’m willing to go along with the Samardzija experiment for now, if for no other reason than if it works, the Cubs have added value from a rather unexpected source. In a fantasy context, however, I’d rather wait and see how he does this season than have a vested interest in his performance.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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The move can be explained by their search for long-term value. I’d imagine Epstein, Hoyer & Co see the possibility of Samardzija turning into a valuable asset (and to fit under the “valuable asset” category, he’d probably have to be a successful starter) as a worthy risk, rather than handing a rotation spot to a league-average, middle-aged starter signed for relatively cheap but carrying no long term value.