Future for Present: Samardzija to the A’s

In what is almost certain to be the biggest trade this season, and probably the biggest since the Red Sox – Dodgers trade in 2012, the Oakland Athletics went all-in on the 2014 season by trading top seven prospect Addison Russell, 2013 first-rounder Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily and a player to be named later to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Even though the A’s could have already been considered the favorites to win the title, this trade puts them firmly in the driver’s seat for October.

Despite ranking second behind the Nationals in team ERA, Oakland’s pitching staff was a middle of the pack 16th for xFIP, according to FanGraphs, meaning they were a pretty good candidate to regress over the second half of the season. Behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (though his injury history isn’t exactly reassuring), guys like Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz don’t have a history of sustained performance. So by grabbing two pitchers from the rebuilding Cubs, the A’s shored up the one area of their team that could have proved vulnerable down the stretch.

People may be surprised that general manager Billy Beane would be willing to sell the farm for guys that probably won’t be around long-term, it will be difficult to criticize him if Oakland ends the season with a championship. Oakland’s offense is currently a borderline-historic juggernaut, outscoring opponents by 1.5 runs per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The second place Angels come into today with a +0.8 RPG differential. Over a full season that’s about an 11 win advantage over just the Angels, let alone the rest of the league.

It shouldn’t be undersold that it is the Angels, rather than another team, right behind the Athletics. Oakland’s division rival can make a case as the second best team in the American League, and it’s difficult to underestimate any team that has the world’s best player. By adding Samardzija and Hammel, Oakland not only becomes one of the deepest staffs in the league overnight, but it takes two prime trade candidates away from their competitors.

Despite being considered the best team in the league before this trade, the A’s are just 3.5 games ahead of the Angels. If Samardzija and Hammel can pitch at about a combined three or four win pace over the remainder of the season (a reasonable expectation), Oakland should be able to win the AL West pretty comfortably. But where this trade will make a big difference for Oakland is in the post-season. Do you think A’s fans might be a little more comfortable with Samardzija or Hammel starting a playoff game instead of the aforementioned Chavez, Milone or Pomeranz? Yeah, me too.

Meanwhile, while Oakland looks set up for a title run, Chicago looks like they may be the front runners for the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, not that they mind. By adding Russell, I think the Cubs have the most impressive group of position players at the minor league level that I’ve ever seen. Russell is a no-shit shortstop, and with him, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara, the Cubs could have an infield with three guys capable of playing the six-hole at the major league level, should the Cubs choose to use that alignment.

Russell ranked third, seventh, 11th, and 14th on the top prospect lists for ESPN, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America, respectively.  The highest praise for him is about his hands, both in the box and in the field. He’s projected as a possible 70 hitter with above average power and a plus glove. If he reaches that ceiling he’ll be the starting shortstop for the National League most July’s. It’s truly rare to see a prospect of his quality moved in a trade, and we haven’t seen one move since the Wil Myers – James Shields trade in 2012. But unlike that trade, it seems difficult to criticize either side in this deal.

While Russell is the real prize in the Cubs’ haul, McKinney and Straily are more than just throw-ins. McKinney was a first rounder last June, and while he’s struggled a bit while an aggressive promotion to High-A this season, he projects as an average regular down the line. The only problem is that average might not be good enough to get in the Cubs’ future lineups, but I’ll get to that in another post. Straily exploded onto the scene two years ago, when he struck out 222 hitters between AA, AAA, and the majors. But he’s struggled ever since, and has bounced between AAA and Oakland the past two seasons. He doesn’t have elite stuff, but Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has done a good job of helping pitchers improve, as seen through Hammel and Jake Arrieta. Straily will have plenty of opportunities to make adjustments without consequence at the big league level, and the Cubs will surely hope that he can get back to the performance level he showed two years ago.

Like just about any trade, it would be dumb to declare a winner before any player involved has played a game with their new club, but I will say that I love this trade for both sides, which I something I can’t really ever remember thinking. While this deal might have swung the title in favor of Oakland this season, it may end up contributing to the end of a certain drought on the south side of Chicago a few years from now. We’ll see.