Yesterday, the Cubs reportedly offered Jeff Samardzija a five year, $85 million extension, a deal that would allow him to remain in Chicago rather than get traded at some point in the next five weeks. Samardzija turned it down without even countering, and it’s now basically guaranteed that he’ll end the season in another uniform. Samardzija’s rejection of the Cubs offer does raise an interesting question for interested buyers, though; just how much is he going to cost in order to sign with a team that trades for him?
The Homer Bailey contract is reportedly the benchmark deal that Samardzija’s agents are working off of, which covered $105 million over six seasons. Because Bailey was already in line for a $10 million arbitration payday regardless, the extension was for five free agent years at a total cost of $95 million, but any new deal for Samardzija would buy out his final year of arbitration as well, making the total contract the more relevant figure for comparison. And it would make sense that his agents would use that deal, as it is a very recent deal for a pitcher with a very similar career. Behold.
Hard to get more similar peripherals than that, though Bailey has pitched a few hundred more innings. If we limit ourselves to recent performance, here is what they’ve done over the last three calendar years.
Again, very similar peripherals, with Samardzija being just a little bit better across the board. Don’t read too much into the somewhat sizable ERA gap, as Samardzija is Example A for why ERA is kind of stupid; he’s already allowed nine “unearned” runs this year, while Bailey hasn’t had any of his runs erased from the record. The earned/unearned distinction is basically useless, and creates the appearance of a separation here where one does not really exist.
Bailey really is a good comparison for Samardzija, and it’s difficult to argue that Samardzija should take less than what Bailey just got a few months ago. However, as we noted at the time, the Bailey deal looks like an overpay, and teams shouldn’t be signing up match that kind of price/performance ratio. While most other +2 to +3 WAR free agent pitchers were signing deals in the range of $50 million, Bailey got twice that, and without being a free agent.
The Bailey deal is an easy one to point to from the player’s perspective, but it’s something of an outlier when it comes to contracts for good-not-great starting pitchers. Samardzija is certainly a cut above the crop of free agents that hit the market last winter, but he’s not Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke, and his track record doesn’t even stack up against Matt Cain. Besides Bailey, the pitchers who have signed $100+ million contracts have been better pitchers than Jeff Samardzija.
And again, Samardzija isn’t going to be a free agent until after next season. If he doesn’t sign a long-term deal, he’s looking at something in the $9 or $10 million range for 2015 salary. While $85 million over five years might sound light, it’s $75 million for four free agent years, or nearly $19 million per season. To get to $100 million over the same term, Samardzija would be asking for the equivalent of $22.5 million for each of his free agent seasons.
There’s a lot of money in baseball these days, but is Jeff Samardzija really a $23 million per year pitcher? Keep in mind that he’s already 29, so such an extension would be buying out his age-31 to age-34 seasons. Samardzija projects as about a +3 WAR pitcher going forward; given normal aging, he’d be expected to be a roughly average pitcher by the time the extension actually kicks in. We’re definitely in a period of inflation in MLB salaries, but average pitchers aren’t going to cost $23 million per year in a couple of years.
Even if you think the current estimates of Samardzija’s talent levels are too conservative, you have to be really bullish on Samardzija to think that he’d be worth $90 million over his first four free agent seasons. Let’s assume that the cost of a win in the 2015 free agent market is $8 million apiece, because we think the league is just going to keep raking in money hand-over-fist. At a $90 million cost for four years, that would require Samardzija to produce roughly +11.25 WAR over those years just to be an average market-value deal.
If Samardzija didn’t decline at all between now and then, and entered that market as a +3 WAR pitcher, we’d expect something like a half WAR per season decline, which leads to a total +9 WAR over the following four seasons: +3.0, +2.5, +2.0, +1.5. To get to +11.25 WAR, you’d need him to not decline at all: +3.0, +2.9, +2.8, +2.6 gets you there. But keep in mind that Samardzija projects at about a +3 WAR pitcher in 2014, and we’re dealing with 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. To get that kind of value, you basically need Samardzija to be roughly as good of a pitcher in six years as he is today.
That’s the definition of a terrible bet. If Samardzija thinks his market value is $100 million over five years, then the best thing any team can do is probably let him prove it as a free agent in 18 months. Even the Cubs $85 million offer looks a little bit geneorus, given what Samardzija is, where he is in relation to free agency, and how pitchers age. I think the Cubs may end up pleased that he turned their deal down, as now they’re free to turn him into some good young talent, and they’ll still have that $85 million to go throw at other, almost-as-good free agents if they so choose.
If I’m a team looking to acquire Samardzija, the idea that he’s looking for a Bailey-type deal would cause me to view him as a year-and-a-half rental, not a trade-and-sign guy. The Bailey deal is a good comparison for Samardzija to use because it was a bad deal for the Reds. If he’s set on getting more than the most recent overpay, then there shouldn’t be a lot of teams banging down his door to sign him up long term.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.