Eons ago, an anonymous Brooklyn Dodgers executive crowed when the club dealt for Chicago Cubs outfielder Andy Pafko, in June 1951, “Gentlemen, we have just traded for the pennant.” Pafko would provide the Dodgers some much-needed additional pop with 35 runs batted in and eighteen home runs in 84 games, in a season in which he was 3.2 wins above a replacement-level player overall.
It wasn’t Pafko’s fault by any means that those Dodgers ended up losing a pennant they once looked to have had in the bank. But there’s a lesson there, ladies and gentlemen, a lesson the Oakland Athletics and their followers would be wise to remember. The swap to obtain Chicago Cubs pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel is being received around much of baseball as the A’s saying, in essence, “Gentlemen, we have just traded for the World Series.”
The A’s have the American League’s best team ERA despite losing Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to season-ending injuries. They’ve been riding Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez, and the surprising continuing comeback of Scott Kazmir. But they could ride those horses only so long before a breakdown, considering Gray and Chavez have yet to work a complete major league season and Kazmir hasn’t since 2008.
The A’s are also 6-5 in their last eleven games. Their AL West lead is down to 3.5 games, and the Los Angeles Angels aren’t about to let them run away with the division if they can help it. (The Angels in their last eleven: 8-3. Even if the Angels haven’t done quite as well against other contenders as the A’s have, so far, allowing that “contenders” may be relative in this peculiar parity season.) Chavez, a converted reliever, has been struggling since April’s end, and the back of the rotation—Tommy Milone (a league-average pitcher at best) and Dave Pomeranz (who yielded to Brad Mills after going down with a fractured glove hand)—has been a question mark long enough.
They played for David Price and couldn’t satisfy the Tampa Bay Rays, who’ve made something of an annual anti-sport out of letting the world speculate on when, not if, Price will be moved. (The “where” factor now becomes a little more intriguing.) Then, the A’s turned toward Chicago, where the Cubs are being run by a regime throttled for spending and requiring creativity to continue building a young club whose animating characteristic seems to be position players with upside to spare.
The Cubs probably weren’t going to be able to keep Samardzija or Hammel, the latter of whom is looking rather like the righthander who earned the opening assignment when the Baltimore Orioles went to the 2012 postseason. And the A’s made it happen by a surrender that may or may not come back to haunt them in future seasons, hooking the deal on Addison Russell, a 20-year-old who was believed by just about everyone watching the franchise to be their shortstop of the near and distant future.
When the deal for Price didn’t solidify, the A’s weren’t exactly ready to throw up their hands; they’d had the Cubs on the other line. So Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney, projected starting pitcher Dan Straily, and the proverbial player to be named later, head for Chicago, the better for the Cubs to continue playing for the near-future.
Of course this is the A’s playing for the Series. This year, not next year. Samardzija and Hammel have postseason experience, and they’ll be brought in to fortify a rotation now spearheaded by Gray, who made his bones and a big splash with magnificent pitching against the Detroit Tigers last postseason. And the historically economic A’s aren’t in much position to keep much of this team’s core together much longer, if at all.
Yoenis Cespedes hits free agency after 2015. Jed Lowrie goes there after this season. Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss should be looking at nice pay raises over the next couple of years. Samardzija turned down a fat extension with the Cubs; Hammel is a half-season rental.
And just what are the chances that the deal makes the A’s a Series favourite? Have a closer look at Samardzija and Hammel. Samardzija looked like the hard-luck ace of the season entering June, with a dazzling 1.46 ERA over his first ten starts and no wins to show for those . . . but since June he’s had six starts and a 5.46 ERA to show for those six. He’s moving to a pitcher’s park, of course, but there’s no real assurance as to whether the A’s get the Samardzija of his first ten 2014 starts or the June edition.
Hammel may have looked good enough in Baltimore a few years ago (league average, occasionally higher by a hair or two) but he’s a 31-year-old journeyman joining his fifth club and having terms on the disabled list in three of his last four seasons. Not to mention that, lifetime through this writing, his fielding-independent pitching rate is 4.21 and his walks and hits per inning pitched rate is 1.40. He’s pitching above his head so far this season (3.16 FIP; 1.02 WHIP), and maybe—maybe—he continues that performance the rest of the way.
A’s general manager Billy Beane has gambled big. Cubs president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have only to wonder about how to re-arrange their lineup to fit all their nice new toys next year. The A’s have a lot more serious wondering to do. And they’d rather not see one of their new toys end the season the way Andy Pafko ended his 1951, standing helplessly near the left field wall, when Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World flew over it, carrying the pennant . . . into the New York Giants’ hands.