Consider for a moment that the top three teams in the American League wild card standings right now are the Rays, Orioles, and Athletics. Now consider in the following moment that the three teams right behind them are the Tigers, Angels, and Red Sox. This is not new information, for any of us, but it seems like the kind of thing we might not be appreciating for everything it’s worth. Regardless of how things turn out, this is the way things are toward the end of August. Baseball is amazing.
Now then, because it’s August, trades can still be made that affect regular-season and postseason rosters, and because the wild card race is so tight, teams are looking to make even slight improvements. On Monday night, as announced during their own game, the A’s made what they feel like is an improvement, acquiring Stephen Drew from the Diamondbacks in exchange for minor leaguer Sean Jamieson. Nothing against Sean Jamieson, but this is the last time he’ll be mentioned in this article. For the Diamondbacks, this was not about the talent return; it was about saving money. For the A’s, it was about getting a little better where getting a little better might make all the difference.
You’re undoubtedly familiar with win curves and the like, and the A’s are right where each extra win or loss is hugely significant. At present, they’re a half-game out of being in a playoff situation. That means that, at present, there’s a half-game difference for the A’s between nothing and some shot at the World Series. Winning the World Series is the whole point, and that’s what every team is working toward.
So no team in a position such as the one the A’s are in can make an improvement that’s too small, because every little bit really does count. At least according to probability. You can never guarantee an improvement, but you can work to boost your odds. Stephen Drew is not all that good, but at this cost, and given what he’s replacing, he’s a perfectly sensible gamble.
Let’s be clear here: Drew is being added for about one and a half months. Possibly two and a half months if things go spectacularly well. He’s got a $10 million mutual option next season that presumably won’t be picked up by both parties, and that comes with a $1.35 million buyout. Drew’s due just under $2 million the rest of this season. From the looks of things, Drew is an Athletic at the cost of a throwaway minor leaguer and over $3 million.
If you understand WAR, and especially WAR figures for non-elite players, you know that you can only expect so much of an impact over a fraction of a single season. Stephen Drew is and has pretty much always been a non-elite shortstop. But a transaction like this is about comparing the new situation to the old situation, and Oakland’s previous situation at shortstop was in dire need of help. There’s a reason they’d been eying Drew for weeks. When Oakland wound up in the playoff race, they looked like a pretty good team with a pretty big hole.
There are 30 teams in baseball. There are a lot of individual positions. Oakland, to date, has gotten a .549 OPS out of its shortstops. Only Twins second basemen have posted a lower combined OPS, and it says something that, while A’s shortstop have hit better than Nationals pitchers, the difference isn’t enormous. This is mostly the fault of Cliff Pennington, who’s fallen off after a few years of adequacy. Pennington’s 2012 struggles are fairly well chronicled, and he hasn’t shown signs of breaking out.
Enter Drew. While it’s unclear how often Drew will play, and who’ll be sacrificed from the roster, it stands to reason that Drew will become the regular shortstop. And while his current numbers are also poor, they’ve been posted over just 40 games, and Drew has a far better offensive track record. He was decently productive last season before suffering his gruesome injury, and there aren’t a whole lot of questions about his defense. He was outstandingly productive in 2010. He’s 29 years old.
Drew doesn’t look to be a substantially better hitter than Pennington, nor does he look to be a substantially better defender. There are concerns — that Drew’s numbers are down, that he’s coming from the National League, and that half of his numbers have been posted in Arizona. But Drew has more raw talent and more upside, and one can’t dismiss the possibility that the A’s figure Pennington is more broken than Drew is. It’s easy to say they’re both suffering from low BABIPs, and they unquestionably are, but the A’s have watched Pennington all season long. In Drew, they see a chance for a little more thump.
Ultimately this might be one of those moves that’s more eyebrow-raising than it ought to be. Stephen Drew’s is a familiar name, and this is a playoff contender changing regulars in August, but it’s late in the year and the upgrade might well be incremental. On that point, it might not be an upgrade at all. Oakland doesn’t get a thousand opportunities to play out the rest of the season; they get one, and over this one stretch run, Drew could perform miserably. Oakland could easily miss the playoffs and this could end up a forgotten chapter in Stephen Drew’s career.
But all trades are gambles, and if you look at this in terms of wild card odds, Oakland has determined its odds are slightly higher with Drew at short than with Pennington at short. They probably are, even if Drew is a little overrated, and even if Pennington is a little underrated. It’s very slight. The A’s didn’t add Elvis Andrus. But the A’s are in that position where something slight might not be something slight at all.
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