Was the Samardzija deal the right move?

The Athletics are the best team in baseball at 55-33, with a run differential of +135. They are absolutely dominating Major League Baseball. So why did they need to go out and acquire Samardzija and Hammel? It’s not like they have a lack of depth at the position; Scott Kazmir has turned out to be a great signing, making the AL All-Star team with his 2.53 ERA and 3.31 FIP. Young ace Sonny Gray has pitched well, to the tune of a 3.08 ERA and 3.52 xFIP. Jesse Chavez got off to a fantastic start, but has regressed slightly the past month or so, with a line of a 3.23 ERA and 3.63 xFIP. Tommy Milone has also pitched very well, with a 3.55 ERA, but with a 4.49 xFIP. The fifth spot in the rotation has been somewhat of a question mark, with Drew Pomeranz (2.91 ERA, 3.87 xFIP) and Dan Straily (4.93 ERA, 5.64 FIP) splitting time in the spot. So far, these pitchers have pitched well, as shown by their ERA’s, but every single one of them is pitching over their heads because their xFIP/FIP’s are higher than their ERA. These types of numbers don’t inspire confidence going forward for Billy Beane. These expected ERA’s would certainly be solid enough to cruise into the playoffs. However, the time is now for the Athletics to win. They cannot afford another early exit in the playoffs. Pitching wins championships, and they sure got some quality pitching when they acquired Samardzija (2.74 ERA, 3.19 xFIP) and Hammel (2.98 ERA, 3.23 xFIP). Beane can replace the 4th and 5th starters (Milone and Pomeranza/Straily) with them. Oakland now has five top of the rotation guys. That is a drastic change for the A’s, but can we be sure it will continue?

Hammel’s Stats
Year 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
First Half ERA/xFIP 2.98/3.23 5.24/4.55 3.47/3.53 4.23/4.69 4.08/3.54 4.43/3.78
Second Half ERA/xFIP ? 3.90/4.35 3.09/2.82 5.73/4.58 5.56/3.78 4.23/3.68

Hammel has generally performed better in the second half, as evidenced by improvement in every year in xFIP except for 2010. (on a Rockies team that plays at Coors Field) Therefore, it can be concluded that Hammel should be pitch just about as well with the A’s as he did with the Cubs.

Samardzija’s Stats

Year 2014 2013 2012 2011
First Half ERA/xFIP 2.74/3.19 4.06/3.33 4.71/3.55 3.48/4.78
Second Half ERA/xFIP ? 4.72/3.62 2.58/3.13 2.23/3.54

2013’s second half is concerning for the Athletic’s ace; his ERA ballooned to 4.72, but his xFIP didn’t regress considerably. Playing on a Cubs team in 2013 that was well out of the race, he may have lost the competitive drive in the second half that he had earlier in the season. Overall, his numbers actually improve during the “dog days of summer”. In conclusion, both pitchers seem to do just as well, if not better as the season progresses.

Now on to what the A’s gave up: top prospect Addison Russell, a shortstop who is ranked #5 on Keith Law’s list of the top 25 prospects in America. Also included were Dan Straily and 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney. Russell has been absolutely tearing it up in AA, with a slugging percentage of .939 and a wRC+ of 175. (75% above league average) Minor league stats are unreliable and inaccurate, so scouting reports are more indicative of future performance. As ESPN’s Keith Law put it, “One of the best pure hitters in the minors, Russell is an incredibly gifted player who has a mature approach at the plate and some of the softest hands you’ll ever see in the field. Once a muscled-up third baseman, Russell dropped more than 20 pounds before his senior year of high school because he wanted to prove to scouts he could stay at shortstop, a decision that has worked out in every respect and also reflects his work ethic and humility as a ballplayer.

He has a simple, fluid right-handed swing with some loft through his finish to generate line drives; his bat speed is so good and the contact he makes is so hard that I still see more power in the future for him, 15-20 homers a year, if not more. In the field, he has the hands to be an elite shortstop and his actions are fine, with only his feet lagging slightly because he doesn’t have the first-step quickness of traditional shortstops. He has plenty of arm for short or third and has shown he can take instruction well enough that no one is seriously talking about him moving to another position.”

He has a swing that is short to the ball and long through it, meaning that is is compact yet powerful. Russell has a very projectable bat, and should become an All-Star caliber player. He is a big chip for Oakland to give up.

Billy McKinney was also tough for the Athletics to part with. He has a sweet, compact swing, especially for a player drafted out of high school. He is a consensus top 100 prospect in baseball. He has played a lot of centerfield in the minors, but projects more as a left fielder because of an unremarkable arm. As Baseball Reference saw it, “McKinney’s tools are fringy to average, but his arm and speed play up because he goes all-out all the time. Scouts love his makeup and are confident that he’ll provide the offense required on an outfield corner.” He should be a solid major league player, barring injury.

As for Straily, he has a lot of potential, and will be somewhere in the range of a third to fifth starter. He dominated in the minor leagues, leading the league in strikeouts one year. He has been more hit or miss in the majors. He has had control issues of late, and his velocity has declined. He is frequently compared to Ted Lilly.

In summary, both sides gave up very good talent. The A’s are in a position to win now, and the additions of Samardzija and Hammel will help them go deep in the playoffs. Oakland had a very good staff before the trade; now, especially in the playoffs, they have a downright scary rotation. No team wants to face Gray, Kazmir, Samardzija AND Hammel in a five or seven game series. The two former Cubs’ veterans also bring valuable experience and reliability. The A’s are now the obvious favorites in October. Justin Verlander is absolutely right; this trade is about the playoffs and beating Detroit, or any other team. I think in three years, both clubs will be content with the results. The Cubs will have a stud shortstop and leftfielder to go along with top prospect Kris Bryant, and the A’s (hopefully) will have a ring.

This trade, in terms of prospects, is very similar to the Royals and Rays’ swapping James Shields and Wade Davis for Wil Myers before the 2013 season. Wil Myers, as most of you should know, is a budding star for Tampa Bay, and the Royals are scuffling. Some may point this trade to evidence that Oakland may have miscalculated in their deal. There are two key differences, however: the two teams’ respective chances to make the playoffs, and how close the prospects are to making the big leagues. Wil Myers was hardly a prospect at the time of the trade; he was going to be the Royals’ rightfielder in 2013. James Shields was about a 4 WAR pitcher coming into 2013, and there was about a negative two WAR difference between Myers and Jeff Francoeur, his replacement. A two win gain in the short term for a team with roughly a 20% chance of making the playoffs in exchange for Wil Myers? The Royals must have thought they saw something about their team that others didn’t. The A’s, on the other hand, according to a statistical model, have roughly a 99% chance of making the playoffs. The A’s are guaranteed to make the playoffs, and are solidifying to go deep, while the Royals were just merely making a desperation move to maybe make the playoffs. Oakland gave up higher-risk prospects than the Rays did, because Russell and McKinney are still several years away from the big leagues. A lot of things can happen to derail a prospects career. Wil Myers, at the time of the trade, was a sure-fire, nearly can’t-miss player. Oakland’s trade is clearly better thought out, and will prove to be much more successful for both sides than the Royal’s last ditch effort.

-Ben Leonard

Cover Image: By mjl816 on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons