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White Sox shouldn't sweat Jeff Samardzija's uncertain future

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History says Sox can cope if Shark tests free-agent waters after 2015

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In his short time with the White Sox, Jeff Samardzija and his representation have found a number of ways to talk around the issue of his impending free agency.

The latest example came Sunday, as Samardzija agent Mark Rodgers reiterated the forseeable future for MLB Network Radio:

This isn't new for the White Sox and Samardzija, and Samardzija's situation isn't new to the White Sox, either. They've courted uncertainty with high-profile pitchers before, and they've lived to tell the tales.

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Back on Jan. 15, 2003, the White Sox took advantage of the Montreal Expos' yard sale by acquiring Bartolo Colon in a three-way deal with the Yankees. Though they briefly acquired Orlando Hernandez in the process for the purpose of sending him to Montreal, they effectively gave up Antonio Osuna, Rocky Biddle, Jeff Liefer and Delvis Lantigua* to make it happen.

(*Lantigua changed his name to Eddi Candelario afterward, making him a true player to be named later. "Delvis Lantigua" is cooler.)

As in the case with the Samardzija trade, the White Sox didn't mortgage the future to acquire the last year of Colon's deal. In fact, back in Baseball Prospectus' super-snarky days, an unusually caustic Jonah Keri let his fading 'Spos have it.

Fleeced by Kenny Williams. What's that like anyway? Getting beaten by Woody Allen in an arm-wrestling match? Losing a battle of wits to an inanimate carbon rod?

Today's Expos trade of Bartolo Colon and Quadruple-A infielder Jorge Nunez for Orlando Hernandez, Jeff Liefer, Rocky Biddle and an undisclosed amount of cash in a three-way deal with the White Sox and Yankees caps a two-month circus that's left fans of the Expos and plenty of other teams nauseous. The Yankees dealt Hernandez and $2 million cash to get righty set-up man Antonio Osuna and Triple-A pitcher Delvis Lantigua.

In the wake of the trade, Williams has instantly gone from embarrassment to weighing membership offers from Mensa in the eyes of many. George Steinbrenner was last seen drawing goat horns on his Larry Lucchino bobblehead doll while cackling maniacally. Omar Minaya's cell phone is eerily quiet - lotsa luck landing that GM job once the Expos move, Omar.

The White Sox had the intent to sign Colon to a long-term deal ...

"Today I'm concentrating on finally getting this deal done, and we're happy to have him in '03," Williams said. "There are a number of variables involved [in re-signing Colon]. There is a desire on my part, absolutely, to extend his stay. But let's take it one step at a time."

... but they needed him just as much for 2003 alone. The Sox went 81-81 the year before due to a shortage in starters. How short were they? They were so short that:

  • Danny Wright was second on the team with 196 innings, which is good, but he posted a 5.18 ERA, which isn't.
  • Gary Glover had to make 22 starts, during which he outperformed...
  • ... Todd Ritchie, who went 5-15 with a 6.06 ERA in one of the trades that made Williams a dunce in the eyes of the analytics community.

So Colon easily gave the Sox a major upgrade, even though he ended up having something of a down year. He went 15-13 with a 3.87 ERA, but he led the Sox in innings with 242, and he saved his best pitching for down the stretch with four complete games in September.

Bigger problems cost the Sox -- Mark Buehrle's awful start, Paul Konerko's awful entire season, Fifth Starter Hell, Jerry Manuel, space monkey mafia -- and so the Sox made no bones about wanting Colon back:

"We feel so strongly about that, we've offered Bartolo Colon probably the richest package in White Sox history to stay."

Williams later limited it to pitchers only.

Still, the Sox's offer is substantial. It's a three-year deal worth $10 million to $12 million per season, according to a source in the organization.

That doesn't sound substantial now, but at the time, Jerry Reinsdorf restricted the Sox to a three-year max on deals for pitchers. Williams bonked his head on that ceiling with the offer to Colon, but the Angels beat him out by guaranteeing a fourth year and a little more money. Colon finalized the deal with Anaheim on Dec. 10, leaving Williams to lick his wounds:

"Nothing personal against [Colon], but it's a high-risk occupation," Williams said. "If something should turn sour, we could be stuck. And if a team such as ours is stuck with that high a percentage [of the payroll] with one guy, it could be devastating."

While Williams took the high road, some members of the organization feel betrayed by Colon, who went 15-13 with a 3.87 ERA last year, completed nine games and finished second in the American League with 242 innings pitched.

They believe they created a cocoon for Colon, an enigmatic sort whom some teams have shied away from signing because of his hefty frame and reputation for keeping late hours.

Colon also is not fond of flying, so sources say the Sox sometimes let him fly separately from the team so he could arrive in a city with more time to recover before taking the mound.

That day was a bad one for Williams, as he failed to re-sign any of his six free agents, and he promoted Dave Wilder to director of player development. The latter turned out to be the costlier mistake.

As for Colon, he had his moments with the Angels, but back problems hampered him in his first year, and shoulder and elbow injuries limited him to just 28 starts over his last two years.

His second year was the only one the Sox might've regretted missing, as he won the Cy Young Award by going 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA over 222 innings. Then again, the Sox might not have noticed, as they were too busy winning the World Series with a rotation Williams reconstructed after Colon headed west.

The Sox already had Buehrle on a team-friendly extension and a gradually improving Jon Garland, but Williams had to work to fill out the rest of the rotation. He did so by converting a regressing Esteban Loaiza into Jose Contreras, signing El Duque for keeps this time, and pulling off another big prospects-for-proven trade to get Freddy Garcia.

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Unlike the Samardzija and Colon deals, Williams had to truly pony up for Garcia's services. In a shocking megadeal more than a month before the 2004 trade deadline, he sent three promising players to Seattle.

In order of importance:

  1. Jeremy Reed, the No. 25 prospect in baseball after hitting .409/.474/.591 over 66 games at Birmingham the year before.
  2. Miguel Olivo, a 25-year-old catcher showing a good bat for the position (.270/.316/.496).
  3. Mike Morse, a large 22-year-old shortstop selected by the Sox in the third round of the 2000 draft.

Making matters riskier, Garcia was only under contract through the rest of the season. The Sox might have beaten the Yankees to the punch on Garcia, but they paid a hefty price in doing so.

It made more sense 10 days later when Garcia signed the kind of contract extension Colon didn't (three years, $27 million). The deal was eminently reasonable on the White Sox's side, and the fact that Garcia's then-fiancee was a second cousin of Ozzie Guillen's wife helped.

Garcia didn't win a Cy Young for the Sox, but he win all three of his postseason starts, including seven shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series. And while he broke down in the final year of his deal, he still provided more bang for the buck:

W-L ERA GS IP H HR BB K
Garcia 41-26 4.40 93 605.1 623 84 159 433
Colon 46-33 4.66 95 586.2 633 90 154 422

And the Sox surely got the best of it, because Garcia's numbers include his disastrous year with the Phillies in 2007 (1-5, 5.90 ERA over 11 starts). The Sox skirted that free-fall by trading him to Philadelphia in December of 2006 for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was the bigger name at the time; a highly touted left-handed pitching prospect returning to the organization that selected him in the supplemental round of the 2004 draft. The Sox had a pick to use on Gonzalez because they but they couldn't re-sign one of their coveted free-agent pitchers after the 2003 season. And that pitcher waaaaaaaaaas ...

... Tom Gordon. Colon also netted a compensation pick, which the Sox used on Tyler Lumsden five picks before drafting Gonzalez. Sure, it'd be awesome if Colon directly led to Gonzalez, but the point is multiple high-round picks help.

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Bringing this back to Samardzija, the larger point is, relax.

It'd be cool if the Valparaiso native discovers a personal-professional harmony on the South Side and signs a friendlier deal ahead of free agency a la Garcia. It'd be even better if Samardzija is on the mound for a postseason winner or three.

But there's no reason to expect him to make it a priority. As his agent says, Samardzija should be in high demand if he hits the open market with another season like his 2014, and that is a luxury that is earned.

While the White Sox have a greater incentive to strike an early deal, it won't be a critical blow if they lose him to a free agent bidding war with only a draft pick to show for it, a la Colon. As Williams said, pitching is a high-risk occupation, so any short-term sting is likely to be worth suffering in the long run. There are other fish in the sea, or horses at the auction.

The more pressing similarity with the Colon trade? Samardzija is just as important for this year as he is for any after 2015. Put him to good use now and ask questions later, because the answers aren't going to be any different for several months.