SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Around a Scottsdale Stadium that very much feels new, Jeff Samardzija sticks out.
Samardzija is one of two veteran remnants left of last year’s rotation, Madison Bumgarner now calling Arizona home. Bumgarner lasted until the end of the season, the Giants’ July run spinning them away from selling, but the trade rumors dogged him until July 31. Samardzija, who reinvented himself last year, may be entering that same hot seat.
The 35-year-old is due about $17 million this season, a season that the Giants are expected to finish either fourth or fifth in an improved NL West. The Giants have lost pieces and tried to piece their way back to relevance, relying on matchups and youth, while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have loaded up and Padres have gotten a year older.
Samardzija, reporting to camp Tuesday with pitchers and catchers, referred to the state of the Giants using the forbidden “R” word — “kind of a slight rebuild” — and said he expected to be with the Giants all year.
“Our big focus has been the start of the season,” said Samardzija, who spent another offseason in the Bay Area and has had a bunch of talks with Gabe Kapler. “A lot of what happens in the future will be determined by what happens in the first two or three months of the season. If we go all-in with these young kids, these veterans we have here and believe in the dream of getting to the playoffs and making a run after that, then all things change.”
It makes sense he believes in comebacks. Samardzija went from an anchor weighing down the team to an anchor of the staff, bouncing back from a dreadful and injury-shortened 2018 to be a reliable, solid starter for the Giants last year. He finished with a 3.52 ERA and got stronger as the year went on, he and Bumgarner carrying a young rotation that needed to be stabilized.
He pitched to his tweaked strengths, throwing a cutter more than ever and not leaning as hard on his fastball, trusting the emerging analytics that were being shown to him.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel great last year in camp. I remember talking with my brother, with my wife a couple times, just really unsure where you go out of the gate last year,” said Samardzija, who pointed to the biggest discovery being “maybe swallowing my pride when it comes to what I feel like I do best. Over the years, take for example throwing in to righties. Years past I would force the issue because I felt it was my best pitch and I enjoyed doing that. At some point in the at-bat the guy would get a fastball in. I think last year I just paid more attention, listened to the game and made my adjustments as the game went.”
This year Johnny Cueto will be the incumbent beside him, with Kevin Gausman, Tyson Ross and Tyler Anderson a few of the veteran additions brought in. The glare will be bigger on the 6-foot-5 Samardzija, who said it would be an “honor” to be the Opening Day starter.
But Opening Day is just the start of how the Giants can prove they’re more than another step in a rebuild that doesn’t see light until 2021. Samardzija is impressed by Kapler — “former Crossfit champ,” and for that reason the pitcher “respectfully declined” his workout invitations this offseason — and hopes the Giants have found enough on the margins to make a difference.
This year will be different, from Samardzija saying part of his role is to be an example for the young starters, to his manager, who is the polar opposite from Bruce Bochy.
“A lot of different ways to skin a cat,” Samardzija said.