Early last month, the Giants agreed to terms on a long-term contract with veteran righty Jeff Samardzija. Two weeks later, the Cardinals agreed to terms with another veteran righty, Mike Leake. The two contracts were identical in duration (five years) and similar in value ($90MM for Samardzija, $80MM for Leake). They were also interrelated — the Giants were the team that most recently employed Leake before the Cardinals signed him, while the Cardinals were connected to Samardzija before the Giants signed him. Both pitchers were a tier below David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann, all of whom received nine-figure deals. Beyond those similarities, however, lie a number of key differences about what, exactly, their contracts attempted to accomplish.
Of the two pitchers, Samardzija is widely perceived as having greater upside — with his mid-90s velocity, tough slider and 6’5″ frame, many of his attributes match those of an ace. He will, however, be 31 this month, and his performances so far in his career have not matched that ace profile. His 2015 season with the White Sox, in particular, was extremely disappointing — he posted a 4.96 ERA, and while ERA estimators suggested that figure could have been somewhat better, his K/9 has plummeted from 9.3 in 2012 to 6.9 last season, while his ground ball rate fell to a mere 39%.
On the bright side, Samardzija has been one of the game’s most durable starters, throwing over 210 innings in each of the past three seasons. And as long as he stays healthy, he seems likely to get at least somewhat better results in the next few years than he got in 2015, when he had to pitch in front of a poor defense and in a tough ballpark in a DH league. Samardzija’s 2015 season wasn’t a good one, but it also represented something of a perfect storm. But the error bar on Samardzija’s future performance is large, and where he lands might depend somewhat on Giants coaches’ ability to help him get back to missing bats, and to inducing ground balls when he doesn’t.
Like Samardzija, Leake has reliably eaten innings. Unlike Samardzija, he’s been very consistent, posting ERAs well below four in each of the last three seasons and regularly inducing ground balls at around a 50% clip. He also limits walks, which prevents opposing batters from doing too much damage against him, and he helps himself by fielding and hitting very well. Leake is also one of the offseason’s youngest free agents — he only turned 28 in November and could well have several prime-era seasons ahead. Also, his contract is worth $10MM less than Samardzija’s (although Samardzija’s limited no-trade clause is preferable to Leake’s full no-trade).
If Samardzija looks like an ace, though, Leake looks like something far less than that. While he isn’t quite a soft-tosser, his stuff isn’t at all overwhelming, and he’s small, at 5’10” — Leake isn’t a lefty, but he’s always seemed like he should be one. Leake has obviously reached the point in his career where it’s wise to judge him more on his performance record than on his profile, but not all the indicators there are positive, either. While Samardzija’s ability to strike batters out has diminished in recent seasons, Leake has never really had that ability, and his K/9 dropped to a mere 5.6 in 2015. Career paths are hard to predict, but it’s difficult to imagine Leake becoming anything close to an ace as he gets older. He does, however, seem more likely than Samardzija to provide league-average innings over the course of his contract.
So which contract do you prefer? Which player’s deal was best for his team?