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The Oakland A's were going to make a trade this week. They play in a stadium that turns into a toilet when it rains and generate less revenue than a team in Cleveland and still will head into the All-Star break as the very best team in baseball, and that is not something they take for granted. No matter how well they're built, in the era of $200 million payrolls, another team can always buy the talent the A's scrimp and scrap to generate.
So every little upgrade they've made – every signing of a player whose blemish they saw as an opportunity to extract value and every trade that worked in their favor – was for this moment, the sort they're not supposed to even consider. The beauty of the A's always has been that they consider everything. It's what makes them so good.
They considered, for example, David Price. Once they steeled themselves to trading Addison Russell, the precocious 20-year-old who was going to be their shortstop for the next seven years starting in 2015, the A's knew anyone was in play, including Price. They talked with the Rays. Permutations of a deal went back and forth. It never materialized.
And all the while, the A's were doing the same thing with the Chicago Cubs. This wasn't Plan B as much as Co-Plan A, because getting Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to fortify their rotation offered them the sort of starting pitching depth they actively work to acquire along with the one-two punch of postseason-ready arms to deal with the bats galore ready to shatter the glass slipper.
This one did materialize. It started last month when they chatted about Samardzija, picked up Monday when they re-engaged, expanded Wednesday when Hammel and Russell joined the discussions, came together Friday morning and was announced Friday night: Samardzija and Hammel to the A's, Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney, starter Dan Straily and a player to be named later to the Cubs, and the fortunes of two franchises altered in a trade that will be discussed for years.
The Cubs add another high-potential position player to a group teeming with them. In addition to should-be All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and could-be All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro at the major league level, the Cubs now have the best hitter in the minor leagues in third baseman Kris Bryant (hitting .357/.452/.720 with 29 home runs in 85 games between Double-A and Triple-A), shortstop Javier Baez, center fielder Albert Almora, right fielder Jorge Soler, do-everything Arismendy Alcantara and Russell. As one executive Friday night put it: "That's six of the top 20, maybe 25 hitters in the minor leagues."
Now would be the time to remember that the Cubs' Six Sigma are just prospects, which is to say they are unrefined and highly volatile. The chance that all six pan out as impact players is nil. The likelihood that five do is slim. It's just the nature of prospecting.
Still, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs' front office are doing exactly what they must to combat the constraints of an ownership group hamstringing their ability to spend. This is how you build a ballclub on a skinflint payroll: develop and sell high. All 29 other teams, including the A's, watched Hammel sit as a free agent for nearly three months. He signed Jan. 31 for $6 million. The deal had next to no downside for the Cubs. One-year deals are fantastic value plays, particularly with the qualifying-offer system that ties draft picks to high-achieving impending free agents. And considering the ascent of Jake Arrieta over the past month – something the Cubs believe is very, very real – the blow to their pitching staff wasn't quite as massive as it might've been otherwise.
The Cubs played this like … well, like the A's, in some weird sort of role reversal where the traditionally poor team plays aggressive monster while the traditionally rich team retrenches today for a rebuild tomorrow. It wasn't just dealing Russell, a cost-certain, mature, face-of-the-franchise sort. It killed Oakland to deal him, just ate at the soul of what they do, which speaks to how much they believe in the premise that prompted this deal.
The 2014 A's should win the World Series.
Should, of course, does not exist in baseball. The A's should not have had to make this deal in the first place, but Jarrod Parker's and A.J. Griffin's elbows blew out because the arm doesn't traffic in should, and Oakland cobbled together a rotation good enough for the first half but not for the whole season. If the A's wanted to keep playing .600-plus baseball and lock down home field, they needed someone to join Sonny Gray at the front of the rotation.
Samardzija is that someone. He is not Price. Few are. And if this backfires – if the World Series-or-bust ethos goes bust – the blowback on the A's will center on just that: If you were willing to go this far, to trade Russell, what kept you from satisfying what the Rays wanted to secure one of the best pitchers in the game not only for this season but next?
Truth is, hindsight is not for people who ply their trade in front offices. They look at the now. Now is Samardzija bringing his frontline stuff to a ballpark in which it will play even better, and since he's not a free agent until after the 2015 season, should the A’s falter next year, they can flip him at the deadline for a gaudy return. Now is Hammel looking like the guy who two years ago started the first game of the postseason for AL East champion Baltimore. Now is the best bullpen in the AL getting Eric O'Flaherty back to turn a weapon even more nuclear. Now is the fact the A's were the best team in baseball before getting two of the most highly coveted pieces of this trade market.
A's general manager Billy Beane said in "Moneyball," rather famously, "My [expletive] doesn't work in the playoffs," which in a way makes this deal seem counterintuitive. On the contrary, the A's are about tilting probabilities ever in their favor, even if it's in the tiniest of increments. If the postseason is indeed a crapshoot, they are trying to bet the pass line with odds.
And so here they were, on the Fourth of July, doing the most American thing possible on the most American of holidays: going for it. The A's want to win the World Series this year, and they were going to do something. It could've been David Price. It was Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Now comes the fun part: Watching how a true blockbuster plays out.
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