We all knew Jeff Samardzija was going to get traded. We all knew Jason Hammel was going to get traded. We all knew the Oakland A’s were in the market for a starting pitcher. Perhaps, in retrospect, we should have expected some convergence of these things we knew. But I don’t think anyone expected that any team would kick start the July trading season by picking up both Cubs starters. Perhaps even fewer figured that a prospect like Addison Russell would be on the move, and I’m assuming that just about nobody could have seen a scenario in which the A’s traded Russell for a starting pitcher who wasn’t David Price.
It’s a shocking trade, one that changes the landscape in a few ways, but there’s a lot happening here, so let’s not gloss over the specifics:
- A’s get 1.5 years of Samardzija
- A’s get 0.5 years of Hammel
- Cubs get SS Russell, 20, No. 11 on MLB.com’s preseason prospect list and No. 5 on Keith Law’s May update
- Cubs get OF Billy Mckinney, 19, 2013 first-round pick and Baseball America‘s No. 2 Oakland prospect behind Russell
- Cubs get RH SP Dan Straily, 25, owner of a 4.73 FIP in 230 major league innings
- Cubs get unknown PTBNL
I’d like to think we can offer more insight here than “wow,” but, wow. You just don’t see trades like this. You rarely see upper-crust prospects getting traded, and when you do, like with Wil Myers, usually the team who moves them gets publicly crushed. We have two teams here at completely opposite ends of the win curve, operating from completely different motivations, and substantially impacting their present and futures by doing so.
Let’s start with the A’s here, since they’re obviously doing this with an eye towards winning now, as well they should be. Oakland is pretty clearly the best team in baseball right now, and that’s true whether you look at wins, run differential, playoff odds, any of it, to the point that we have them at a 97.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. Things would have to go really, terribly wrong for this team to miss the playoffs even as currently constituted, and that’s clearly not what this trade is about. It’s about doing better than losing in the first round, as they’ve done six times this century (plus another in the ALCS), including the last two years; it’s about taking advantage of the window their roster and the state of their competition has provided them.
You look at the rest of the American League, and you realize the circuit isn’t full of the juggernauts it used to have. The Rangers, Oakland’s main rival for the last half-decade, are an injury-ruined disaster. The Yankees are weaker than they’ve been in years. The Red Sox need a surge just to get back to .500. The Rays have completely collapsed. To have that AL East trio and Texas all down at the same time is better timing than the A’s could have possibly hoped for. The Tigers are still dangerous, but their bullpen is a mess and Justin Verlander clearly isn’t what he once was. It’s anyone’s guess what the Orioles, Royals and Mariners are going to be. The Blue Jays and Angels have offense, but they have rotation questions of their own, and suddenly there are two fewer options to go after.
And really, that’s a not-insignificant part of the prize, here. Yes, the A’s just shored up a weak spot in a big way, but they also ensured that their rivals couldn’t. Hammel may only be their fourth-best starter, but now he’s their fourth-best starter. He’s not going to be the one helping a competitor get to the playoffs or outduel them once there.
Think about how insanely competitive the AL has been for nearly a generation now, and realize how rare of a situation this was for the A’s. It’s pretty clear, then, that this is the right time to push those chips all-in. After this year, only Jed Lowrie and Jim Johnson (if he even lasts the season) are free agents, but after next year, Yoenis Cespedes, Scott Kazmir and John Jaso can all walk. Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and others are going to start seeing arbitration raises soon. They had to make the move now, and despite how productive their rotation has been, it’s clear that they needed to do more than cross their fingers and pray that it’d stay together; that’s how they ended up with actual replacement player Brad Mills making starts.
With just over half the season gone, we can see that the projections don’t consider any of the A’s starters likely to keep this up, for reasons that most know. Tommy Milone is a soft-tossing lefty; Scott Kazmir‘s track record, and that he hasn’t thrown 200 innings in seven years, is a concern; Jesse Chavez, though one of the season’s best stories, had two major league starts entering the year and has been hit hard in each of his last two starts.
There’s no one there likely to improve; there’s several likely to regress. That holds true for the additions, too, but they aren’t replacing Gray or Kazmir. Now, presumably, Mills is out of the rotation, and either Milone or Chavez joins him.
Samardzija, obviously, was the key here, with Hammel a necessary part, but one that probably is more to balance out the fact that Samardzija for Russell straight-up wasn’t going to work. If a Price trade couldn’t happen — Jeff Passan reported that they attempted to — and Cliff Lee‘s health can’t be relied upon, Samardzija is the obvious best pitcher available. Though the projections don’t see him as likely to keep up his early performance either (and note that his new league and ballpark are not factored in), he’s clearly a suitable partner with Gray at the top of the rotation. Going into a potential playoff series, Gray / Samardzija / Kazmir / Hammel looks a lot more dangerous than Gray / Kazmir / Milone / Chavez. That was a situation that was untenable over the long term, and the A’s knew it. They’ve probably just added three wins above replacement in the second half alone, plus however you want to define the odds of a better pitching performance in the playoffs.
Don’t forget, also, that the A’s also are left with options for the future, and not just because Daniel Robertson, probably their best remaining prospect, is also a shortstop. Hammel may be a rental, but Samardzija isn’t, which means he, Gray and Kazmir could be headlining the Oakland rotation in 2015. Or, they could look at the new-found depth they have, with the injured A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker returning, and attempt to flip the final year of Samardzija’s contract to fill a hole elsewhere or re-infuse the farm system, or do the same next July. Or, move a displaced starter now to try to improve second base. If they keep Samardzija for the full term he has left, they’ve purchased approximately 60-70 starts between the two ex-Cubs, not including potential playoff appearances. That’s 60-70 starts that won’t otherwise be made by Milone or Mills or Straily. There’s real, tangible value to that.
The A’s bought high here, and you can argue they overpaid. Make no doubt about that; Hammel was a $6m flyer this past winter, and Samardzija’s career consists of four up-and-down years as a reliever, two solid ones as a starter, and finally now his first plus-level campaign. If you’d have preferred that they held out for 1.5 years of Price in any Russell deal and for the A’s to have added a lower-level secondary starter elsewhere, like bringing back Brandon McCarthy, you couldn’t be faulted for that. It could be that a realistic deal with Tampa just wasn’t available to be made. You can dislike the particulars of this trade, it’s just difficult to argue that one wasn’t necessary.
It’s pretty clear, anyway, that the A’s are sick of getting bounced out in the first round of the playoffs, and that they feel the value from a rotation improvement now is worth cashing in a top prospect. Billy Beane chose to be bold here, and for good reason from where we stand. Still, there’s plenty of risk; fairly or (mostly) not, this trade is likely going to be judged on the Oakland side over the long-term almost entirely based on whether it brings them a World Series.
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Of course, this has major repercussions for the Cubs, too. If trading off 40 percent of the starting rotation sounds like a familiar habit for the Cubs — and what a weird thing to say — that’s because it is. In 2012 they traded off Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm; last year, it was Matt Garza and Scott Feldman. From those four moves alone, the Cubs have stockpiled Kyle Hendricks and Christian Villanueva (Dempster), Jaye Chapman and Arodys Vizcaino (Maholm), C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm, Mike Olt and Neil Ramirez (Garza), and Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop (Feldman). Arietta has already paid off fantastically, and Grimm, Strop & Ramirez have been big parts of the bullpen. Edwards might be their best pitching prospect. Trading starters for youth has worked out for the Cubs recently.
Now, they’ve added Russell — a 2011 first-rounder who briefly made it to Triple-A as a 19-year-old late last season before missing most of 2014’s first two months with a hamstring injury — to one of the deepest prospect pools in the game. Russell and Mckinney join Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Albert Almora (all in the first 15 of MLB.com’s preseason Top 100) along with Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and others. It is an insanely, ludicrously enviable group of young players, and don’t forget that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are only 24 and playing like stars in the big leagues.
Of course, you’ll note the obvious, which is that all of the names in that last paragraph are hitters. Castro is a shortstop, Russell is a shortstop, Baez is for the moment a shortstop at Triple-A, and Alcantara has been previously, though he’s now playing second next to Baez. Bryant is a third baseman. Mckinney, Almora and Soler are all outfielders. Throw in Rizzo at first, keep Alcantara at second, look at what 2014 draftee catcher Kyle Schwarber is doing to poor A-ball pitchers, and suddenly you have yourself an entire lineup, just without the corresponding talent to pitch.
But then again, realize the baseball world we live in. Just in the past two days, both ESPN and the New York Times have run articles about the continuing decline of offense. By wOBA, this season is tied for the seventh-worst since integration, and so there’s an inefficiency to be exploited there. If offense is so difficult to find, then the team who can stockpile it puts themselves in a very, very good situation. The Cubs may have wanted to get pitching back for Samardzija and Hammel, but once they realized Russell was available it was too good of an option to pass up, and they’re clearly betting on teams with pitching to spare coming to their doorstep begging for someone who can actually hit the ball.
Maybe that will be Baez, a consensus Top-7 prospect across all the publications after a .282/.341/.578 (and 37 homers) season at 20 across two levels last year. Maybe it’s Castro, whose bounceback season suddenly makes a contract of five years and $44m (after this year), plus a $16m 2020 team option, look extremely appealing. Considering that all three of them, including Russell, could be in the bigs by this time next year, it’s a situation the Cubs don’t have terribly long to work out, making this offseason interesting.
We shouldn’t gloss over Mckinney, who is in High-A barely more than a year after graduating high school in Texas, and though he may be a bat-only left field type, he has plenty of bat to work with. We shouldn’t skimp on Straily, a soft-tossing righty with home run problems who seems questionable to be a member of the next good Cubs rotation. They’re both important pieces here, particularly Mckinney. But let’s be honest with ourselves; Russell is the get. A very good Cubs system just got remarkably better, and though watching Chris Rusin or Dallas Beeler or Hendricks join Arrieta and Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson may not be fun, 2014 was never a primary year for the Cubs anyway. From a Chicago side, it’s extremely difficult to not like this.
* * *
After all that, what are we left with? The A’s were already the best team in baseball, in a very favorable situation as far as competition and window goes, and now they’ve securely plugged a leak, making them the obvious favorites for October. The Cubs just added one of baseball’s brightest prospect talents into a system already full of hitting potential. It’s a fascinatingly fun trade all around, both for the names involved and the impact it has on the 2014 pennant race and the future fortunes of two franchises. We try to insta-judge trades being “won” or “lost,” but it’s hard to do that here. Both teams are closer to their goals than they were yesterday.
The real winner here? Well, it just might be Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays, who just saw two of the top available pitchers get moved while only one contender benefits, leaving the Mariners, Cardinals, Dodgers, Angels, Blue Jays and everyone else to fight for Price. They might not get a prospect the caliber of Russell — there simply aren’t many in existence — but as that feeding frenzy gets going, the haul ought to be impressive. If this deal is any indication, July is going to be a blast.
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