SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When people talk about the remaining "core Giants," they're bunching Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford together. Perhaps, depending on one's viewpoint, Evan Longoria also fits into that group.
Jeff Samardzija never gets that designation, but when he walked into Scottsdale Stadium at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder and an equally big smile on his face, he certainly qualified. Samardzija is sneakily beginning the fifth and final season of a lucrative contract he signed after Giants starters flamed out in 2015. His 106 starts for the Giants are more than the rest of the projected rotation combined.
Samardzija has spent back-to-back offseasons working out in San Francisco and spent more time with new manager Gabe Kapler than just about any Giants player. At 35, he enters camp as one of two candidates to start Kapler's first Opening Day in San Francisco, along with Johnny Cueto. With Madison Bumgarner now with the rival Arizona Diamondbacks, the two are ready to serve as the rotation's leaders.
"Me and Johnny's job is to take care of the pitching staff and to do the same exact thing that Hunter and Pablo and Buster and those guys need to do with the position players," Samardzija said. "It's a big onus we have to bring those guys along fast. We don't have time to mess around. There's no learning curve opportunity there. We need to go and we need to go right out of the gates, and it rests on our shoulders to bring those kids along as fast as possible."
In the midst of a 13-minute State of the Shark session Tuesday, Samardzija became the rare Giants employee to utter the word "rebuild" out loud. But he doesn't want to view this season as a lost one for veterans. If anything, this is his best chance to compete in three years.
Samardzija's 2018 season was wrecked by persistent shoulder soreness, which led him to alter his routine and spend the next offseason in San Francisco, where he went through tedious winter workouts. Last spring, Samardzija had to grit his teeth and listen to his bosses talk about the need to lessen his workload and turn a man who prides himself on being a workhorse into a five-inning pitcher.
Ultimately, Samardzija won out. He threw 181 1/3 innings and went at least six innings in nine of 14 starts after the All-Star break. They were quality innings, too. Samardzija's 3.52 ERA was his lowest in five years.
On Tuesday, Samardzija checked into camp with a healthy arm and a desire to run it back. He admitted he wasn't nearly this confident a year ago.
"I'm a step ahead, for sure. There was a lot of uncertainty going into last year and to be honest I didn't feel great last year in camp," he said. "I remember talking with my brother and my wife at different times and I was just really unsure if we were going to get out of the gates last year."
If Samardzija bolts out of the starting block this season, as early as Opening Day, he could find himself in an uncomfortable but familiar spot. The Giants are counting on him to be a leader, but they also know he could end up being one of their better trade chips in July. Samardzija is entering the final season of that $90 million contract. He would be owed only about $6 million after the trade deadline, and there's never a shortage of contenders looking for starting depth.
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On his first day of the 2020 season, Samardzija said he's not worrying about where he'll spend the final day.
"Since me and Kap have been talking, our big focus has been the start of the season," he said. "A lot of what happens in the future will be determined by the first two or three months of the season. If we go all-in with these young kids with the veterans that we have here and believe in the dream of getting in the playoffs and making a run after that, then all things change.
"You can have plans and look forward but a lot of things change in this game over the course of a week, a couple of months."