Saturday, July 12, 2014

A's Add Arms, Cubs Collect Chips

Jeff Samardzija makes Oakland's great rotation even better (ESPN)
"Going for it" has never really been part of Billy Beane's philosophy. He constructs his teams with the goal of regular season success in mind. They're built with depth and balance, designed to withstand the rigors of a long, grueling season. And they usually do, better than most. But without elite aces, top-shelf closers and dynamic power hitters, they are not built for the inherent randomness of postseason small sample sizes.

The playoffs are a different beast than the regular season. The margin for error is razor thin, and luck plays more of a role than we'd like to think. The goal is not to win 95 games in six months; it's to win 11 (or 12 if you're one of the wild card teams) in four weeks against the best competition baseball has to offer. Anyone can win a one-game playoff or five-to-seven game series. It truly is a crapshoot.

Beane knows this, and knows there's nothing anyone can do about it. He can't afford to chase the big-name power arms or sluggers that would likely put him over the top in the postseason. All he can do is build his team to make the playoffs and hope things fall into place. Hope they get the breaks and and the calls and the timely hits and big defensive plays.

Unfortunately for the Oakland A's, the stars haven't aligned for them in quite some time. It's been 25 years since Tony LaRussa guided Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley and co. to Oakland's most recent World Series. For all the regular season success that Beane's teams have enjoyed in his 17 seasons as general manager of the A's--the six division titles, the seven playoff appearances, the two seasons with more than 100 wins and the six others with over 90--he's never won the big one. Incredibly, all of Oakland's wins have not produced a World Series championship in the most recent quarter-century. Beane's teams have never won a pennant, much less a World Series game.

This year, with Oakland cruising along to a third straight division title and likely the best record in baseball, Beane did something he rarely does. He traded young talent for established veteran starting pitching. Usually it's the other way around.

But with most teams still in the playoff hunt, Beane got a jump on the rest of baseball by making a big splash last weekend--nearly four weeks ahead of the trading deadline. He did business with another analytically-minded front office--that of Theo Epstein's and Jed Hoyer's Chicago Cubs--and was able to hammer out a deal more than a week before the All-Star Break. Dealing from a position of strength as one of the few seller's in a buyers' market, the rebuilding Cubs were able to pry away two top prospects and failed starter Dan Straily from the A's for a pair of talented starters; Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, both of whom were enjoying excellent starts with the Cubs.

In Samardzija Oakland gets a very good pitcher, a 29 year-old flamethrower who struck out more than a batter per inning in 2012 and 2013. His 2.78 ERA would easily be the best mark of his career since becoming a regular starter in 2012, over a full run better than his previous best. None of his peripherals suggest he's been particularly lucky, so he's a good bet to sustain his performance going forward. Sure enough, he's been phenomenal in his first two starts with Oakland, allowing just four earned runs in 15 innings with a 10/1 K/BB ratio.

Hammel, with a 4.62 ERA (96 ERA+) in more than 1,000 big league innings, will never be mistaken for an ace, though he's pitched like one this year with a 2.98 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 4.52 K/BB ratio through his first 17 starts. Seeing as how Hammel is all of the sudden pitching the best baseball of his life at age 31 after many mediocre seasons, the Cubs were wise to sell high on him, though if he maintains his current K rate and walk rate--both career bests--he'll be very useful to the A's in the second half. His 3.32 FIP and xFIP indicate that he hasn't been especially lucky, though his .273 BABiP--34 points below his career rate--and 78.5 percent strand rate certainly suggest some good fortune. He's also on pace to set a career high in innings, which could lead to a fade down the stretch.

The trade gave the A's an abundance of arms. The stingiest team in the American League has so much pitching that they were forced to demote Tommy Milone, a crafty southpaw who hadn't lost a start since the beginning of May and carried a 3.55 ERA through the first week of July. On most teams he'd be a solid mid-rotation starter, but on the A's he isn't even good enough to crack the starting five.

As for the Cubs, they got quite a haul in outfielder Billy McKinney, Oakland's first-round draft pick last year, and shortstop Addison Russell--Oakland's first round selection the year before. Russell ranked as one of the sport's 15 best prospects coming into the season and has hit well in the minors, compiling an .897 OPS on the farm to date. McKinney has struggled in High-A Ball this year after raking Low-A last year but he's still only 19 and has plenty of time to figure things out. Even Straily, a decent starting pitcher before this year, could have some value if the Cubs get him right.

Both teams have to like this trade. The A's bolster their rotation and become the clear favorites to win not just the AL West, but the pennant as well. The early returns on the deal have been great, as Samardzija was terrific in his first two starts and Hammel pitched decently in his one. Meanwhile the future-minded Cubs unloaded Hammel, a free agent at year's end, and Samardzija, their most valuable trade chip. Arbitration-eligible this winter, he was due for a raise if the Cubs held on to him. In return they get two great pieces that figure to play a prominent role on the offensive juggernaut being assembled on the farm. They make the Cubs' already bright future even brighter and will likely be key contributors going forward for Chicago, who appear well-positioned to win a championship before the decade's out.

But if the Cubs win a title before Billy Beane does, then it will probably be because this trade went horribly wrong for him--like if Samardzija blows out his arm or Hammel regresses into the mediocre pitcher he was before this year. The AL West is a much more challenging division than the NL Central, which could also limit their effectiveness. Some have criticized this move as a redux of the ridiculed James Shields-Wil Myers trade from two offseasons ago, and it's possible that Beane just made a similar blunder. He hasn't had the best luck, you know.

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