A's display aggressiveness in swap for Shark, Hammel
Cubs snag top prospects as Oakland capitalizes on pitching market
Not everybody noticed, but the Athletics were baseball's best team the last two seasons, winning more games than anyone else. They won 94 in 2012, 96 in '13 and currently project to win 100 this season.
You'd think that would make owner Lew Wolff and vice president and general manager Billy Beane happy, wouldn't you?
Hardly. They don't want to take a chance on another American League Division Series loss to the Tigers this time around -- or, for that matter, a chance that the Angels or Mariners could pass them to steal the AL West. That's why they just upped the ante in a huge way, trading their two best prospects for two of the best starting pitchers on the market in the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
Both Samardzija and Hammel were strong candidates for the National League All-Star team. They will nicely fill the void left near the top of the rotation when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin were lost for the season in Spring Training -- although it says a ton for Bob Melvin, pitching coach Curt Young and the organization that the A's starters currently have an ERA of 3.34, the best in the AL.
That's ridiculous, when you think about it.
Now how much fun will it be to play the A's with a rotation that features Sonny Gray, Samardzija, Hammel and the new and improved Scott Kazmir?
With their rotation now as deep as the ones in Detroit, Seattle and at Angel Stadium, the Athletics will become a strong favorite to go to their first World Series since 1990. That's why Beane was willing to give up 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell and 19-year-old left-handed-hitting power hitter Billy McKinney. Both were first-round Draft picks with huge futures. The Cubs are also getting 25-year-old right-hander Dan Straily, who used his curveball to strike out 659 in 614 1/3 innings in the Minors but had a 4.11 ERA in 41 Major League starts.
Give Beane and his staff credit for seizing the opportunity at one-stop shopping provided by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the patiently rebuilding Cubs. It is never easy to part with big pieces of your future, but the Athletics don't have the luxury of being able to maintain a high payroll.
They have a chance to win now, with Yoenis Cespedes the only regular earning more than $10 million, and Wolff was willing to add big-ticket reliever Jim Johnson in the offseason. That move hasn't worked as planned, but the A's have led the West since April 24 and management isn't backing off.
Fans at Oakland's O.co Coliseum are going to love what they're getting in Samardzija. An ultra-competitive guy armed with a high-90s fastball and the ability to pound the strike zone, he didn't mind going over the middle to catch passes for Notre Dame and brings that same approach to the mound.
It's a crime that he has a 2-7 record to go with 2.83 ERA through 17 starts. His best moment of the season came on May 5, when Rick Renteria let him throw 126 pitches to take a 1-1 tie against the White Sox into extra innings, but since then, Renteria -- no doubt acting on orders from Epstein and Hoyer -- has strictly limited pitch counts for him and Hammel.
The Cubs had hoped to sign Samardzija to a contract extension, but never came up with an offer that he found compelling. The best was reported to be at $85 million for five years, and Samardzija isn't the type to take financial security over establishing his market value through free agency. Maybe the A's will have better luck than the Cubs interesting him in a long stay, but don't be surprised if Beane flips Samardzija next winter, looking to get back prospects to offset the loss of Russell and McKinney.
Hammel, who is eligible for free agency after this season, is 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA after a win on Friday in Washington. His breaking pitches and command have come together this season, as Epstein and his evaluators felt they might.
Give the Cubs' staff credit for identifying pitching, as Hammel follows Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman in being traded for prospects after short stays. It remains to be seen if the club will regret not keeping more of it, however.
But in Russell and McKinney, the Cubs are getting two front-line prospects who add to one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. As they continue laying the groundwork for future playoff teams, they have assembled an array of talent that the organization may never have seen.
Russell joins Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara to give the Cubs three potential long-term shortstops at Double-A and Triple-A. While one of them will likely move to second base to play in an infield with Kris Bryant at third base, you can't look at the math without wondering if Epstein and Hoyer are preparing to trade Starlin Castro.
Russell is probably a more well-rounded player than Baez, whose power is his calling card. McKinney is also a complete player along the lines of Albert Almora, and as a left-handed hitter joins 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber to add needed balance for the future. McKinney had 10 home runs at Stockton in the Class A Advanced California League, a sign that he could develop into a high-average hitter with the ability to hit 25 homers a season.
An ensuing Castro-for-pitching trade could answer the question that has begged asking -- how an organization needing long-term pitching can trade its best arm when he should have plenty of shelf life. But Epstein had apparently concluded that keeping Samardzija for the long haul was going to be impossible.
"It's hard to sign guys to extensions," an NL general manager said recently. "It's real hard. Sometimes the player is just going to go onto the market, no matter what, and you have to recognize that."
You can argue that the Cubs could have kept Samardzija and Hammel, added one free-agent starter and one free-agent hitter and tried to compete for an NL Central title next season. The team at Wrigley Field this season hasn't been as far away as the standings make it look, but the lineup around Anthony Rizzo and Castro needs help.
It's going to get an overhaul in the near future. That young core was going to be the best that the organization has ever seen, and now should be even better than that. Meanwhile, Chicago fans will look on in envy at what is happening in Oakland.
You've got to love an organization that is both smart and ultra-aggressive.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.