The Athletics and Cubs kicked off the MLB trading season late Friday night with a blockbuster deal. The Athletics acquired two of the top starting pitchers on the trade market, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, in exchange for three players, top prospect Addison Russell, RHP Dan Straily, and 19-year-old outfielder Billy McKinney. The deal sent shock waves through Major League Baseball and caused some movement in the MLB futures market, as the A’s went from +550 to +400 to win the World Series at Sportsbook.ag.
The Athletics were already thriving with a patchwork rotation that includes converted reliever Jesse Chavez, some spot starts from Drew Pomeranz, and a lefty with big home/road splits in Tommy Milone. The A’s lost Jarrod Parker and AJ Griffin, two of their 2013 regular starters, to Tommy John surgery prior to the season and had to make some adjustments right away. Now, the pitching-rich A’s not only have one of the game’s top bullpens, but also one of the game’s top rotations.
By adding Samardzija and Hammel, all five of the A’s starters are in the top 35 in ERA. Among qualified starters, Samardzija has the league’s 16th-highest ground ball rate and he goes from the Cubs, who are a poor defensive team, to the A’s, who are the league’s best team at converting ground balls into outs. In Hammel, the A’s get a pitcher with a 4.52 K/BB ratio and a different look for the opposition because Hammel is 6’6” and that takes hitters some time to adjust to.
The A’s certainly improved on Friday night, but there is cause for some concern. Samardzija has never pitched in the American League and it’s a better league offensively than the National League. Hammel is just 22-29 with a 5.00 ERA in the American League in 119 appearances with 71 starts.
One of the reasons that the A’s were willing to include a player like Russell in the deal is because Samardzija is arbitration-eligible next season, so the A’s get a year-and-a-half worth of his services instead of just the rest of this season as a rental. The A’s are also desperate and the American League is vulnerable this season. In their past seven playoff series dating back to 2000, the A’s have won one series and they promptly got swept in the ALCS. That was in 2006. In the six ALDS losses, the A’s lost every one of them 3-2 in the best-of-five format.
What this trade symbolizes for the A’s is a monumental step forward. The “Moneyball” ideology employed by the A’s throughout the 2000s would have frowned upon trading a young, controllable asset like Russell for an expiring contract in Hammel and a player with rising costs like Samardzija. It looks like a no-brainer for the A’s because of the immediate impact, but adding payroll, not only this season, but next year as well, has not been standard operating procedure for the A’s. Ownership opened up the pocketbook for offseason additions in the bullpen and now the starting rotation has had needs filled with important dollars. Considering the context of the move and what the A’s have already done this season, they have to be the prohibitive favorite to win the American League and quite possibly the World Series.
On the other side, this is a rather good deal for the Cubs. The Cubs will have five of the Top 50 prospects in Baseball Prospectus’s mid-season rankings that come out on Monday and have one of the deepest and most talented farm systems in all of baseball. There are a couple others on the fringe of that list as well. Theo Epstein, former GM of the Boston Red Sox and current President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs, and Jed Hoyer, current Cubs GM, have to be excited about the future. Not only do they have quality MLB talent waiting in the wings, but that talent can get them the pitching that is necessary to compete in the National League.
Straily is an interesting piece in this deal because there’s no reason to give up on a 25-year-old with his arm. He was 10-8 with a 3.96 in 27 starts last season and struggled with a 1-2 record and a 4.93 ERA in seven starts this season, but he’s got swing-and-miss stuff and has some control issues to iron out. He should be in the Cubs rotation for the rest of the season and a shift to the National League might do him some good, like it has so many pitchers in the past.
From a handicapping standpoint, the Cubs were a tough team to back prior to the trade and it certainly gets tougher now with a rotation of Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Dan Straily, Jake Arrieta, and either Dallas Beeler or Carlos Villanueva. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cubs jettison some of their position players as well because the second wild card spot limits the number of teams that will be sellers. A guy like Nate Schierholtz, who has good splits as a platoon hitter, could be an attractive trade deadline acquisition. Depending on Emilio Bonifacio’s health, his speed and versatility are a weapon for other teams. Reliever Wesley Wright has already bounced around a little bit in his career and teams are always desperate for bullpen upgrades this time of year.
There will be some big underdog prices on the Cubs with that rotation. If any of their prospects come up in August or September, the Cubs could get a small boost a la what happened with the Astros when George Springer got the call. The Astros have since leveled off, but their temporary success was profitable for underdog bettors. The Cubs could fall into that same category.
Overall, this was a good baseball deal and one that positively impacts the future for both teams. For handicappers, expect to pay enormous prices on the A’s the rest of the way and look for spots to back the Cubs as a big underdog with a starting rotation that’s definitely questionable.