BOSTON – It's not yet June and thanks to the advent of the two wild card spots in each league, only two of 30 teams can make the argument to their fans that they're out of the playoff hunt.
With apologies to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a club that made offseason moves with the intention of contending and will now give new hire Tony La Russa time to assess the damage of a disastrous start, the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs have dropped far enough in the standings to consider the postseason unachievable.
The Cubs have a prized piece at the front of their starting rotation. He is 29-year-old Jeff Samardzija, the ace of a bad baseball team who's expected to top the wish list of teams looking to bolster their pitching staffs ahead of the important games of August and September.
Don't let the numbers fool you. Samardzija is good. The Cubs are not good. He is winless in nine starts this season despite posting a big league-best 1.62 ERA. In fact, Samardzija's winless skid stretches to 16 if you go back to last year. Chicago, with its impotent offence, doesn't score him any runs.
An even crueler fate: Samardzija pitched seven scoreless innings against the Yankees on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, departing with a 2-0 lead, only to watch his closer and defence implode in the ninth. The Cubs lost in extra innings.
Word around the Blue Jays is if the club is in contention approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, ownership would be willing to loosen the purse strings to acquire additional help.
Toronto needs help in its starting rotation with two spots in perpetual question. J.A. Happ is filling one at the moment. Somebody will fill the other come Saturday. It's expected to be Liam Hendriks, a former Minnesota Twin who's off to a strong start at Triple-A Buffalo.
Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro was a Cub last year and caught Samardzija 10 times.
"He's really good," said Navarro. "I think he's one of those guys the numbers last year didn't show what he's capable of. He's a horse. He wants the ball. He wants to win. He's still got that football mentality. He's that type of player."
Samardzija features a sinking fastball, which he pumps up at 91 miles per hour at the low end, 97 at the high end. He'll spike a splitter; he throws a backdoor slider and a cut fastball.
"He's got everything, man," said Navarro. "He's got it."
Should Samardzija land in the American League East, a real possibility considering the interest he'll likely draw not just from the Blue Jays but also the injury-riddled Yankees and maybe others, he'll quickly find himself in a home run-friendly division with home run-friendly parks and lineups that stretch deep.
It's not the National League Central. Navarro doesn't think he would have a problem adjusting.
"I believe so," said Navarro. "I think he's a strikeout pitcher. He's a swing and miss type of guy. I believe that he's got what it takes. I think the most important thing that he's got is he's a really competitive guy and he wants to win. Obviously he's going to have to make some adjustments coming from the NL Central to the American League East but I think he's going to be a huge asset if we get the opportunity to get him."
The Cubs' reported asking price for Samardzija in the offseason involved both top pitching prospects Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. Needless to say that would be a steep price to pay.
It may, however, be the going rate. With so many teams jumbled around the .500 mark and no sign of that changing in the foreseeable future, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer should have a number of intriguing offers to peruse.
If Cliff Lee's elbow problem is anything serious for the Phillies, another potential chip comes off the market and Samardzija's price goes up further.
How about that? The perpetually weak Cubs will be dealing from a position of strength.
CHECK OUT THE PODCAST
Episode 5 of The Baseball Podcast, #TBP, is available online.
TSN 1050 contributors Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star and Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com and I discuss Fenway Park, the Blue Jays' red hot offence, the persistent issues with the back end of the starting rotation, Jose Reyes' defence and whether the media is too easy on general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
Click here to listen.