What makes the Athletics-Cubs deal so fascinating is the guts it took to make, a trade between two teams run by people who defy convention for the way the game changes.
Does this mean the Athletics have won the World Series? Of course not, not in the random world of October baseball, when in a series you can get a Scherzer/Verlander/Sanchez or Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu in six of seven games in an LCS or World Series. What it does mean is that in a division which features the three best run differentials in baseball—Oakland, Seattle, Angels—the A’s have a far improved chance to finish first, which the realigned playoffs now reward.
Billy Beane had no idea how Jesse Chavez, who is already past his career innings high, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Tom Milone will hold up as they near 180 innings. He knows what Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel give him. In 34 starts this season, they have failed to get the Cubs to the fifth inning once.
Once. They have failed to get the Cubs to the seventh inning seven times. With Oakland’s offense, defense and bullpen, they are huge additions.
As all but a few realize, Moneyball is about recognizing undervalued assets and changes in the game. On base got expensive. Beane went to defense and roster flexibility. And now, in a game that one GM Saturday said “overvalues prospects,” Beane was willing to trade the best prospect in the organization, Addison Russell, for reasons of skill and character, not to mention the fact that scouts who watched him in the Arizona Fall League rated him higher than Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, who will be Russell’s teammates in Chicago for many years. Watching him this spring with one of Beane’s most trusted lieutenants, I had a Derek Jeter comp laid on Russell. When Beane and Theo Epstein agreed on the deal, Beane told him, “you got Barry Larkin.”
And while small market teams spend days and nights dreaming, Beane has a team with the best record in baseball, just made the first huge deal, and the Oakland Athletics have three players on their roster that they signed and developed—Gray, Yoenis Cespedes, Sean Doolittle, and Doolittle was drafted as a first baseman. “When people ask me if we did this to win the World Series, we’re not that arrogant,” says Beane. “We did this to have a good team, to finish first in a division with two very, very good teams. The end game isn’t to have the best prospects, it’s to have a good team. We didn’t want to lose Russell. He may be the best young player we’ve had since I’ve been here. But if we’re going to finish first, the extra month of having Samardzija and Hammel is really important.”
The Cubs had been taking offers on Samardzija. Not one team was willing to trade its best prospect to get him. Beane knew what he needed, and gave up Russell. Period. Deal done, with close to 10 starts from Samardzija and Hammel before the deadline.
But while Beane continues to defy convention, so does Epstein. In the days before the 2005 draft, as I pestered him about a Cape League favorite named Jacoby Ellsbury, he said “with the testing implemented this year, the game is going to change, and we have to begin to change with it.” Seven outstanding seasons and two world championships for less than $20M, Ellsbury left for his rightful reward. The Red Sox already had theirs.
While teams fight to draft arms at the top of the first round, Epstein has stockpiled bats, the best in each of the last two in Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. He sees the pitching injury rates. He sees the business: pitchers get to free agency, premium position players do not; you can find pitching in deals, you cannot find position players (in case you haven’t recently checked the numbers of the Red Sox outfield combine); you can trade for and develop young pitchers.
Last July, the Cubs traded for Jake Arrieta, who their coaches believe is their best pitcher. Kyle Hendricks, whom Epstein acquired for Ryan Dempster in 2012, has recently upped his velocity to 93-95 and will be on his way, soon. Jed Hoyer and Epstein rebuilt half their bullpen and got a premium arm in C.J. Edwards last season for Matt Garza, a deal the Rangers regretted.
Now look where the Cubs sit:
–Between now and January, they can allow teams to line up, be it for Starlin Castro or Javier Baez, and the cost of a 24 year old all-star or premium power at the position to the Mets, Yankees, Marlins, Dodgers, Mariners and others likely will be a combination of front end starting pitching and a young catcher. Memo to bidders: you want quality, you trade quality, as Billy Beane showed you.
–By 2017, when Anthony is their graybeard and Bryant, Russell, Almora, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara and friends are the lights of the Clark and Addison, those young players will be making little more than $10M. With the ballpark nearly finished and a new television deal on the horizon, they can buy what they need on the pitching free agent market.
This was not an analytics deal, it was a huge deal between two front offices deep in analytics, thought, scouting and, most of all, the guts to defy the gravity that binds so much of the game’s thought process. Neither the Athletics or the Cubs were afraid to lose, and so the biggest trade of the season was consummated while everyone else was watching fireworks.