Jon Lester and the A’s Fascinating Big Bet On 2014

Well, this was probably not what we thought a Jon Lester trade was going to look like. After speculating about which team would unload their farm system for a rental, the answer is none of them; instead, the A’s used Yoenis Cespedes to land the Red Sox ace, and picked up Jonny Gomes as a replacement for the right-handed slugger they just traded away. This is a fascinating deal from a lot of angles, but let’s focus on the A’s side of things for a second.

Very clearly, the A’s believe that they can win the World Series this year, and are aligning their roster to give themselves the best chance to do that. And this is probably the perfect storm for the a team in the A’s position to go for it; the Red Sox are bad, the Yankees are mediocre, the Phillies are awful, and the Cubs and Mets are still rebuilding. There is no $200 million behemoth standing in the A’s way this year, at least not unless the Dodgers get to the World Series, and it isn’t clear that the Dodgers are better than the A’s anyway. The Angels and Tigers are still around, but the Angels might have to play their way in through the Wild Card game, and the Tigers pitching staff looks a little less fearsome than it has in past years.

The A’s are in go-for-it mode not just because of their own roster this year, but because this is the kind of year in which it makes sense for a small-market team to push their chips and try to take advantage of the league’s parity. It’s why Jeff wrote that Lester to Pittsburgh would make sense. The door is open for a low-revenue team to have a parade this winter, and the A’s are responding to that opportunity by trying to kick the door in.

It’s why they gave up Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, and it’s why they’re now giving up the final year and a half of Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester. The A’s are in serious win-now mode, and are making the moves they can to put their best team on the field this October. And they’ll figure out next year next year. Given the opportunity, the overall approach makes sense.

But let’s talk about the specifics, because the devil is in always in the details. The A’s are a better team with Lester and Gomes than they are with Cespedes, but how much better, really?

I think some of my reservations about why the Dodgers shouldn’t pursue Lester or David Price apply here, really. As I noted in that piece, the Dodgers would essentially be replacing an average big league pitcher with a good starter for one game in the division series, and then if they got to round two, they’d replace that average starter for one start and then Lester would force a good starter to make just one start instead of two for the next two rounds. The A’s rotation presents a similar issue.

Before this deal, the A’s October rotation was Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jason Hammel. Hammel’s been lousy over three starts with the A’s, and this trade just kicked him out of the playoff rotation, with Lester probably sliding into the #1 spot and pushing everyone else back by a game. So, the first round upgrade is Lester for Hammel in one start, and then Lester for Samardzija in a second start. The first upgrade is legitimate, even if Hammel is clearly better than he’s pitched for Oakland, and about the same as the Dodgers would have gotten by swapping out Josh Beckett. The second upgrade is pretty small, as the gap between Lester and Samardzija just isn’t that large.

And in the LCS or the World Series, this pushes Scott Kazmir back to only making one start instead of two. And I just don’t know how if that’s any real upgrade, to be honest. Since Kazmir re-emerged as a big league starter at the beginning of last year, here are his totals compared to Lester.

2013-2014 ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Lester 79 79 90
Kazmir 85 89 86

Are the A’s more likely to win a game with Lester starting and Gomes in left field than they are with Kazmir starting and Cespedes in left field? I’m not sure, and even if they are, it’s not a significant upgrade. For the second and third round of the playoffs, the entirety of the upgrade is replacing one Jason Hammel start with one Jon Lester start, basically. It’s not nothing, but this is a less impactful deal than the Samardazija acquisition, especially considering it takes an above average player off the A’s roster in the games when Lester isn’t pitching.

Cespedes probably isn’t as good as his reputation, which has been enhanced with some crazy throws and a couple of home run derby titles. After a monster first year in Oakland, he’s settled in as more of a good player than a great one. Even with the big performance in 2011, his career wRC+ is 117, and the crazy great arm mostly just offsets the fact that he’s not a particularly great defensive outfielder. Overall, he’s an above average hitter and an above average left fielder, but that makes him roughly a +3 WAR player, and not any kind of star.

But that’s still part of the calculation here. The A’s basically just traded a +3 WAR outfielder for a +4 WAR starting pitcher, but in the postseason, the +4 WAR pitcher is going to replace a +2 WAR starter. If Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry are both healthy in October, then perhaps the outfield downgrade won’t completely offset the pitching upgrade, but Crisp is not healthy right now and Gentry hasn’t been for most of the year. If either one is unable to play full-time in October, then the A’s outfield downgrade may actually be larger than their pitching upgrade, since Gomes is just not very good.

This Samardzija trade was the A’s giving up significant future value for a significant short-term gain. This is not that. This is a good team moving pieces around to become a different kind of good team, and maybe improving on the margins if everything goes right. Of course, giving up the final year of Cespedes’ contract — at $10.5 million, he’s a bit of a value, but not some kind of crazy steal — isn’t the same thing as trading six years of Addison Russell either. In exchange for a minor 2014 upgrade, the A’s gave up a piece with limited future value as well, though we also have to account for the draft pick going to Boston and the potential draft pick that could have been gained by keeping Cespedes and making him a qualifying offer after next year which is the only pick they’ll get, since Cespedes’ contract does not allow him to receive a qualifying offer.

And when you add in those two factors, I’m not sure I really like this deal for the A’s that much, to be honest. I’m with them on the win-this-year plan, and get why they’re pushing their chips in on their 2014 roster. But I don’t know how much better this deal makes them in 2014, to be honest. This is a blockbuster trade in terms of name value, but one that doesn’t really move the needle much at all. Acquiring Samardzija and Hammel moved the needle. This nudges it a little.

For the Red Sox, this trade makes all the sense in the world. They don’t want to rebuild, and now they have a power-hitting right-handed corner outfielder under contract for next year’s shot at redemption. They’ll likely still make another run at re-signing Lester, and they’ll get a decently valuable draft pick from this deal. A draft pick and an underpriced year of a quality big league outfielder is a nice return for a couple of months of a rental.

For the A’s, the idea makes sense, and this was probably their only real way left to upgrade their roster, given the lack of quality players on the market right now. I’m just not so sure the short-term value is really there. Swapping out Cespedes for Lester makes them a little bit better, especially if they didn’t trust Kazmir to be at full strength in the postseason, but this is more of a minor upgrade than any kind of huge improvement. They didn’t pay like it was a huge improvement, so it’s not some kind of irresponsible overpay, but I guess I just don’t see the reward here that I saw in the Samardzija deal. The primary piece of value here might be that Lester won’t be pitching for some other contender, in fact.

It’s a splashy trade that probably won’t matter much. And that’s one of the reasons why the whole thing is just so interesting.

Update: The A’s have re-acquired Sam Fuld, and he’ll probably replace Cespedes on most days, so now the bigger picture deal is Cespedes/Milone for Lester/Fuld/Gomes. if you buy into Fuld as an elite defender, then this becomes a real upgrade for the A’s, as Fuld makes up for some of the lost OF value, and Milone wasn’t in the 2014 picture. But Milone is also a useful medium-term piece, so they give up some value for future years in that swap. That deal makes this deal make more sense, and given the overall picture, I’d say the A’s improved enough to justify the costs.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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