Every couple of weeks, it seems, the Cubs are committed to noting that they have recently "continued negotiations" on contract extension talks with Jeff Samardzija. Here's how I envision this: an exec contacts the pitcher, gives him a few numbers, and Samardzija laughs riotously. Like it or not, this front office likes to position itself to "win" most every contract. They won't, as some players will get hurt or underperform. That said, the fewer bad deals a team writes, the better off they are, all other things being equal. As it's doubtful Samardzija will sign a team-friendly deal (since he figures to sign a player-friendly deal within the next three months), he will likely be traded before the July 31st deadline. But more importantly, what's a VRS?
Before I get to VRS, let's do a little figuring on Samardzija. He is under team control through the end of the 2015 season. This season, he will earn $5.345 million (an absolute bargain), and wants a big payday to stick around. As big payday contracts are tough for the signing team to win, trading does seem like an obvious option. If Samardzija gets traded, what would it take for the Cubs to win the trade?
If Samardzija winds up staying in Chicago next season, it would be sheer speculation to project what he would get. However, as it's a bit important for this exercise, let's put it at $10 million. In short, if Samardzija is traded, one season and two-and-change months would be lost. Conversely, the money not sent on his contract could be spent elsewhere. (Just trying to play it straight.) The Cubs would probably lose about 8 WAR (your mileage may vary) and un-spend about $12 million. With a win above replacement looking in the range of $7 million the cost of Samardzija is around $56 million, with the cost savings somewhere around $12 million.
Losing Samardzija around the trade deadline would cost the Cubs about $44 million in WAR value. What would be needed in return to "win" the trade?
To look into this, let's look back at the Sean Marshall trade. Marshall, at the time, was a very good reliever. He signed an extension with the Reds shortly after the swap. I don't have the numbers, but to replace the value that Marshall would provide the Cubs, what would they need from Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt, and Ronald Torreyes? As the two prospects didn't provide much, it was on Wood. What would be needed from Wood to win the trade?
He would need to be a VRS. What is a VRS? A valued, reliable starter.
Most people like to turn into pro scouts when talking about starting pitching. "He's a two." Or "He's a four." In reality, the ranking of a pitcher is somewhat variant. One year he might be mediocre, then a year of really good. Then a year of largely injured. Then a year of being borderline bad. Then a year of being really good. Then slipping off for another year. Many are generally around league average. Which is fairly good.
Over the long haul, you can average things out and give him a ranking that makes sense. However, unless a pitcher is really top-shelf, he'll float between levels of effectiveness. Even inside of a year, pitchers jump from one level to another, as baseball is streak-ridden.
To get a great deal in the Marshall trade, Wood would have to be one of those starters you generally relied on each time you gave him the ball. On occasions, he would let you down. As cases like Edwin Jackson (who has not been valuable in the least) can have a good outing once in awhile, just to buck the odds. As Wood has been far better than advertised, the Cubs won that one handily. Whether you call Wood a good four, a three, a soft two, or whatever morph of a rating you use, by getting value from him, the Cubs crushed on that trade.
In another case, what could you have expected the Cubs get from their remaining dozen or so starts from Scott Feldman in 2013? A win above. Maybe less? What do the Cubs need to win that one? Jake Arrieta to be a valued, reliable starter. If he is a VRS, that is another landslide.
Getting back to the Samardzija trade, if that happens, what will the Cubs need to win that one? Even before the particulars are announced, you can guess it will be the same standard. With the (highly plausible) potential of Marcus Stroman (or reasonable facsimile thereof) plus one coming over in a trade from the Blue Jays, what will the Cubs need to account for the six or so WAR they will be trading away? Of course, they need Marcus Stroman to be the second coming of Walter Johnson.
Actually, what they need is for the main pitcher coming back to be a valued starter in his time here. Or, he needs to be a VRS. That would rather easily replace the lost wins from losing Samardzija.
But, what if he's no better than BCB whipping boy Chris Rusin? If that's the best the Cubs get out of the trade, then it won't be a win. Depending, it might even be a loss. The concept of VRS plays beyond the Samardzija trade, though. To be successful, a team needs quite a few VRS over a period. If Hammel and Samardzija get traded, that would lessen the Cubs to one (Wood) or two (Arrieta, if you're buying him as one) VRS.
Hopefully Tsuyoshi Wada or Kyle Hendricks elevate to that level. Maybe Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwrads, Corey Black, or Ivan Pineyro will join soon, as well. Perhaps the first pick in June will be a pitcher with the potential to reach that level as well. As to the "What if the Cubs have more than six or seven? Won't that clog things up?" argument, I've never heard a GM say he had a hard time trading a valued pitcher under team control.
Adding quality pitching is always good. Some won't ever advance to the level of "good in MLB." Some will miss due to injury, or lack of advancement. There are other potential reasons, as well. However, adding guys who reasonably look like potential VRS will probably have value as long as the game is played. Even if they can't get it done as starters, they are the types that are often quality relievers.
So, if the main option in the soon-to-happen Samardzija trade never makes it as a starter, does that mean it was a bad trade? Not necessarily. I fully expect the trade to include two pitching prospects. If Stroman (or whoever) misses, there is always a chance the other guy could be a VRS.
Or, they could both be good.
Whatever the status of Samardzija, I plan to use the term VRS into the future. You may hate it, since it's vague, and.... whatever. (You may hate it because you think I want Samardzija traded, which, by the way, I don't.) I don't really mind. To me, the goal is to acquire as many potentially good starting pitching otions as possible. Which the Cubs have been doing the last few years, better than in the past. Not only that, they've been developing what they already have.
And look for the trend to continue with the Jason Hammel trade.
And, yes, the Jeff Samardzija trade.