The first big deal of the MLB Trade Deadline season went down last night – Ken Rosenthal and other reporting that the A’s acquired both Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs in exchange for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and a couple other players. There are a lot of “win for both sides” opinions floating around this morning, but I think a few other items are worth noting.
(1) Billy Beane finally goes all in – or does he?. Most pundits are noting that the trade marks a stark departure for Billy Beane’s A”s teams – while his excellence as a GM is rarely questioned, his teams have advanced past the ALDS only once, and this trade squarely addresses that issue. Beyond Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir, the A’s have a very deep rotation but one that fails to strike fear in the heart of playoff opponents – Samardzija has ascended this year to near ace status and will get the ball in Game 2 or 3. Hammel is a nice 4th starter, who could potentially see a playoff start, but who likely contributes more value in allowing the A’s to give Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray some rest down the stretch (neither has ever thrown 200 IP) so they are able to pitch deep into October. In terms of what Beane acquired: Hammel is a free agent after this season, while Samardzija has one year of arbitration left before hitting free agency after the 2015 season. Given the A’s budgetary limitations, it seems fair to say they are unlikely to be players for either Hammel this off season, or Shark next season. Why are we assuming that Beane won’t turn around and flip Samardzija before opening day 2015? Starting pitching is always in demand and given the Shark is in store for a big raise in arbitration, I would expect Beane to be aggressively looking to re-tool his farm system using Samardzija as the primary chip, rather than swallowing his big 2015 raise and injury risk.
(2) Cubs Logjam at SS? Some of the discussion in our baseball circles focuses on Theo Epstein’s choice of return for Samardzija – rather than looking to address a thin crop of pitching in the upper minors, the Cubs stockpiled another top SS prospect. As of now, the Cubs have Starlin Castro at SS at Wrigley, Addison Russell presumably reporting to AAA Iowa to play SS – where Javy Baez is already playing SS. They also have Arismendy Alcantara, a natural SS, playing 2B there, and have recently promoted Kris Bryant to play 3B. Is this a problem? I’m not sure I see the problem. First of all, Starlin Castro is not going to block any of this players. He is owed almost $50M through 2020 but has regressed significantly since exploding onto the season as a 20 year old, bottoming out in 2013 with a .280 wOBA. Castro has rebounded to post a .351 wOBA through the first half of 2014, but I see no differences in plate discipline or contact, merely a few extra fly balls that have found the seats (but according to baseballheatmaps.com, his fly ball distance is nearly the same as 2013, lending reasonable grounds for skepticism as to whether the improvement is real). If Theo Epstein can find a believer in Castro’s resurgence, all the better for the Cubs rebuild plans. There are also significant questions as to whether Kris Bryant’s true position is 3B or RF, as some scouts doubt his has the quickness to play 3B in the majors, but his arm and defense would play as plus in RF. As for Baez, his power potential is off the charts, but questions remain about both how much contact he’ll make (currently striking out at a 33% clip in the minors) and whether at 6’ and 190 pounds at 21, he is better suited to 3B. While his bat would be truly impact at SS, all reports indicate it will be good enough to play anywhere, presuming he tones down his aggressive approach and/or learns to do a little more damage against secondary pitches.
(3) Back to Beane – David Price? I’ve been critical of Beane in the past as someone too willing to write off the postseason as a crapshoot – and for that reason, I certainly must applaud him for his bold move yesterday. The A’s are clearly the best team in baseball through the halfway mark, sporting a 3.5 game lead in the AL West that would be bigger but for the fact that the A’s bullpen has struggled and arguably the AL’s second best team also resides in the AL West. The only question I have for Beane is, if you were going to move Addison Russell, could you have gotten David Price? Samardzija is good, Price is even better. Both are eligible for their final year of arbitration in 2015 before hitting free agency. Price will undoubtedly cost more, so that may have been a consideration for the A’s as well (paying $10M+ for Shark in 2015 could be possible, paying $20M ish for Price perhaps not), but I can’t help but wonder if this was truly the A’s “all in” year, Beane would have been better served selling out for Price, and then potentially moving him in the offseason to avoid Price’s expense in 2015.
Ultimately, most commentators are agreed that this move will be judged on the A’s side squarely on whether the A’s get to and/or win the World Series. I think that’s partially true, though I am not sure that Beane won’t use Samardzija to restock his system during the Winter Meetings. On the Cubs side, I just don’t see the logjam many are predicting. There are still questions about the pitching pipeline on the North Side, but the middle of their lineup in 2015 and forward looks formidable.