Looking back at the 2019 Giants, with an eye toward the future. Previously: Brandon Belt, Sam Coonrod, Trevor Gott, Evan Longoria, Joey Rickard, Donovan Solano, Kevin Pillar, Alex Dickerson, Fernando Abad, Stephen Vogt, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Pablo Sandoval.
Being tradeable has never been such a compliment.
A year ago at this time, Jeff Samardzija was stapled, glued and affixed to the Giants, fresh off an injury-filled 2018 in which he threw 44 2/3 ineffective innings. His contract looked like a bust that the Giants couldn’t derive value from or escape.
A resurgent 2019 has changed the equation. The question has become less about whether the Giants can deal him and more about what the Giants would do without him.
Samardzija, after spending much of his offseason in the Bay Area rehabbing with Giants staff following injuries to his shoulder, was middling for the first three months of the season, the Giants swirling the drain and Samardzija letting them plunge. His emergence in July coincided with the Giants’ furious run, nearly untouchable from July until the end of the season, throwing 97 2/3 innings of 2.67 ERA ball.
What led to Samardzija’s turnaround? The first key was health and regaining the strength in his shoulder. The second was a renewed pitch mix, relying more than ever on his cutter, which he threw 23 percent of the time, as opposed to 9.3 and 10 percent the past two seasons, and his four-seam fastball, valuing a pitch that has elite spinrate over the two-seamer he previously favored.
A healthy Samardzija falling back on pitches he had shelved in past years was a different Samardzija, having one of the best seasons of his life at 34, his 12th year in the majors. He finished among the NL leaders in ERA (14th, at 3.52) and WHIP (10th at 1.11), while making 32 starts and lasting 181 1/3 innings. He did that all while showing the effects of age, his velocity down (an average 86.3-mph slider became an 85.2-mph slider). He was the innings eater the Giants paid for, and one who inspired confidence every time he got the ball.
Which was a rarity for the 2019 Giants, who paired him with Madison Bumgarner, eventually got Johnny Cueto back in September, but otherwise trotted out trying-out starter after trying-out starter, none fully impressing. Now, chances are Bumgarner will not be back. And Samardzija, entering the final season of his deal, in which he’ll make $18 million, is a crucial piece if the Giants have any hope of being competitive.
There are teams to whom the Giants might be able to offload the big righty, who has a limited no-trade clause. But with a rotation that is filled with possibilities but not probabilities, Samardzija figures to start the season in San Francisco — even if he might not finish it there.
If Samardzija picks up where he left off, he’d be the trade-deadline piece the Giants didn’t cash in with Bumgarner. And while Samardzija appears to like the Bay Area, he’s pitched a total of three innings in the postseason; it would be hard to envision him blocking a trade to a contender. And as the Giants portended by non-tendering Kevin Pillar, the 2020 season will be more about progress than the postseason.
It’s a good bet that Samardzija will anchor the rotation in April. The better Samardzija pitches to start the season, the better the odds he’ll finish the season somewhere else.