With opening day just a few weeks away, the San Francisco Giants will begin to configure their rotation and Jeff Samardzija should be atop the staff.
As the San Francisco Giants begin to consider the new rotation dynamic following Madison Bumgarner's departure in free agency, Jeff Samardzija has emerged as a candidate to be the staff ace and Opening Day starter.
Samardzija is entering the final season of the five-year, $90 million deal he signed with the Giants back in December 2015. During his time with the team, he has been a workhorse, and in 2019 he generated a 3.52 ERA across 181.1 frames.
The Opening Day assignment is an honor for starting pitchers, and teams use the assignment as a way to reward a pitcher for his recent performance.
In five of the past six seasons, Bumgarner has earned that distinction, but the Giants will need to tab someone new for the honor during the 2020 season.
In four seasons with San Francisco, Samardzija has a 4.10 ERA (101 ERA+) and 4.09 FIP, as he has been mostly effective during his Giants tenure.
That includes an injury-marred 2018 season where he posted an unsightly 6.25 ERA in 44.2 innings, which negatively skews his numbers a bit.
If that season was removed from his ledger, then the University of Notre Dame product would have a 3.94 ERA in a Giants uniform.
Two of the bigger criticisms against Samardzija are that he is prone to giving up home runs and that he never lived up to the expectations that came with his huge contract.
The first criticism is valid. Samardzija has a history of working too much in the strike zone, and this results in a few too many home runs as evidenced by his 1.2 HR/9 rate over the past four seasons.
The second criticism may have some merit, but it is built on bias and subjectivity.
While the 35-year-old may have never lived up to his ace potential, he has shown flashes of it, and has been far from a disappointment. The fact that the Giants have had three straight losing seasons could influence how Samardzija is viewed by the fan base, but the win-loss record is more indicative of the team as a whole.
With all of that being said, the Giants are gearing up for a new season, so everything Samardzija has done during his first four seasons in San Francisco is in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lack of a true ace, the team will need to give the Opening Day nod to either Samardzija or Cueto since they are the most established and longest-tenured Giants in the rotation.
The case could certainly be made for Cueto, and it would not be surprising to see him regain his form as one of the better pitchers in baseball now that he's healthy. Cueto made four starts at the end of the 2019 season after missing the bulk of the previous two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Still, the Giants in particular, and baseball in general, is a meritocracy. The players who perform get rewarded.
As the Giants consider who to appoint as their Opening Day starter, recent history has a favorable opinion of Samardzija. He pitched to the tune of a 3.52 ERA in 2019 while handling a substantial workload.
With Opening Day just five weeks away, it should be Samardzija who is handed the ball against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium when the 2020 season begins. He has earned that distinction.