July 7, 2014
Billy Beane Buys What the Cubs Are Selling
Note: This article was originally published on Saturday, July 5.
MLB Impact (R.J. Anderson)
Five weeks ago, I wrote about Billy Beane's recent trend of trading prospects for veterans. By being willing to deal young, cost-controlled assets, Beane has bypassed the usual low-and-slow rebuild. Instead, over a two-year-span, he’s built the best team in the American League. The hook was that Beane, subject of sabermetric hagiography, was going against the dogma; he wasn't concerned about dollars-per-win or years of control, and he weighed the short term more highly than the long term. He was, in a sense, acting like Dayton Moore and Ruben Amaro Jr. have before, except that he had the analytical cred and the results to protect him from derision. On Friday night, Beane outdid himself.
Whereas Beane's motives for those past trades were hard to pin down, this one is obvious:Hhe wants to win the World Series and he wants to do it this year. He's seen his Athletics get bounced by the Tigers in each of the past two postseasons and, rather than risking another early exit, he decided to improve arguably the weakest part of his roster with not one but two upgrades. Beane had to dread the idea of Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz, or Brad Mills starting a pivotal postseason game. By adding Samardzija and Hammel he has—to the extent that he can—guaranteed that such a scenario is off the table.
Samardzija figures to slot in as the eventual Game Two starter, which is a good spot for him. He has his moments where he looks like a no. 2 starter anyway, thanks to a power arsenal that’s flush with fastballs of all varieties. A physical presence on the mound, Samardzija has worked at least six innings in 13 of his 17 starts, putting him on pace to top the 200-inning mark for the second consecutive season. Inconsistency has been an issue for Samardzija in the past, so the A's are gambling on his ability to keep everything together down the stretch.
If Samardzija answers the call, he could cement himself as the winter's most intriguing storyline. Just what Beane plans to do with his newest gem after the season is unclear. Samardzija does have another year of team control remaining, yet his salary figures to climb well above his present $5.35 million mark through arbitration. Perhaps the A's keep Samardzija and recoup a draft pick after he leaves, or maybe they'll look to trade him at some point over the next 12 months. Whatever the case, that's a secondary concern.
Comparatively, Hammel's future is cut-and-dried. He's a free agent at season's end, and there's little doubt that he'll want to search the market for a multi-year after settling for a one-year pact last winter.
Hammel's improvements this season have been credited to a refined slider and a reworked approach. He's used the slider more often in place of his curveball and changeup, and he’s seen his hit, strikeout, and walk rates improve as a result. Like Samardzija, Hammel has been able to work six-plus innings in 13 of his 17 appearances. Unlike Samardzija, Hammel has never been known for his durability. His career single-season high is short of 180 innings, and while the A's don't have to worry about how the increased workload could affect him next season, his effectiveness heading into October will be worth watching.
Beane already had a lineup that ranked seventh in True Average and second in defensive efficiency, as well as a bullpen that was fifth in ERA. This trade almost certainly gives him not only the best team in the AL, but the best team in the majors. The upgrades came at a cost, and Beane could look silly if Russell flowers. Then again, he’ll look pretty smart regardless of Russell’s future if he has a World Series trophy to admire. –R.J. Anderson
Fantasy Impact (Bret Sayre and Mauricio Rubio)
Despite the light win totals, Samardzija has been a fantasy asset this year, as he’s posting solid numbers across his pitching line. Now Samardzija will take his fastball/splitter combo to cavernous O.co Stadium and will pitch for arguably the best team in baseball.
Yes, his stock is up. Shark’s main issue in the past was shaky command, but he’s posting a career-low 6.9 percent walk rate this year and has a WHIP in the 1.20 range. Because of his batted-ball profile, he’ll benefit from pitching in front of a very efficient Oakland defense that excels at converting groundballs into outs. Mix in the fact that the A’s are likely to deliver more wins for Samardzija than the Cubs would have, and I think we have the makings of a guy you absolutely want to blow your FAAB on in AL-only leagues. His situation has improved considerably from a fantasy perspective, and I’m definitely buying here.
Over the past two years the Cubs have shown an ability to identify buy-low pitching candidates and successfully extract value out of them. Jason Hammel was on the “buy low and rehab for value” plan, and he delivered, much to the delight of fantasy owners. Hammel has a respectable win total, a good ERA, a great WHIP and a great strikeout-to-walk ratio. Hammel is striking out 24 percent of batters this year and walking only 5.2 percent. Hammel, like Samardzija (and any pitcher), will benefit from both O.co and the Oakland defense that plays there. I would expect a decline in strikeouts and jumps in ERA and WHIP, but he’s still going to be a valuable pitcher in fantasy. You go after Shark in AL-only leagues first, but Hammel is worth a play as well. – Mauricio Rubio
This one is a very slight shift, as there's no indication that Chavez will lose his rotation spot even with Samardzija and Hammel in town, but as the fifth starter, his leash is going to get quite a bit shorter. Once Pomeranz returns, the A's will likely have two or three realistic options at the end of the rotation pending Chavez's return to Earth—and he doesn't have the track record for stamina to show that can go 180-200 innings in a season.
The big lefty's fantasy value was always going to be in question down the stretch because of the time he's missing after punching an inanimate object, but with two new starters in the mix and Fernando Abad and Eric O'Flaherty around in Oakland, there may not even be a spot for him as a southpaw in the pen when he gets back. On the bright side, it looks like Sacramento has a good chance to make the playoffs in the PCL, so he has that going for him.
There shouldn't really have been great expectations for Milone, but he will go back to his role as Oakland’s sixth starter who comes up for spot starts in the Coliseum. He's still worth holding onto in AL-only leagues if you have the reserve spot, but otherwise, he's waiver-wire material.
Maybe the A's can get their dollar back from the Brewers? –Bret Sayre
Acquired SS-R Addison Russell, OF-L Billy McKinney, RHP Dan Straily, and a player to be named later or cash considerations from the Athletics in exchange for RHPs Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. [7/4]
MLB Impact (R.J. Anderson)
Under Jed Hoyer, the Cubs' deadlines have become predictable. Each year they trade multiple starting pitchers, and each year they grab a post-hype arm in return. Straily fits the same profile—young, previously well-regarded, close to the majors—that Arodys Vizcaino (Paul Maholm), Justin Grimm (Matt Garza), and Jake Arrieta (Scott Feldman) did before. If you throw in Travis Wood, acquired in the winter rather than the summer, Hoyer's fetish for this type is further exposed.
Just last year Straily looked like a pitcher with staying power. Previously a pop-up prospect, he posted numbers comparable to Jarrod Parker’s, a more decorated arm of the same age. This spring, with Parker out for the season, Straily took on great importance in the A's rotation. Yet he failed to rise to the occasion. Straily had struggled with home runs in 2012, his introduction to the majors, and those problems returned in 2014. Wed with his walk rate, the coupling led to one too many bad outings to begin the season. The A's demoted Straily in May and, when they needed a replacement for Drew Pomeranz, opted for Brad Mills. Who could blame them? Straily's numbers in Sacramento looked a lot like his numbers in Oakland, including a minor-league career-worst home-run rate.
Even so, Hoyer's bet is understandable. Consider that Straily and Hammel share some traits—both are fastball-slider righties with historical issues with the long ball—and the Cubs should feel confidenct in pitching coach Chris Bosio's ability to help their newest arm return to his old form.
Of course, there are some negatives to smother the positive vibes. For instance, Straily's fastball has lost some mileage, which, when paired with heavy slider usage, always leads to injury speculation. Hoyer should have access to something more concrete than guesswork, however. Think of it this way: Straily, a pitcher who could join the big-league rotation in no time, might be the third-most important piece of this deal. –R.J. Anderson
Prospect Impact (Ron Shah and Jason Parks)
With the 11th overall draft pick in the 2012 draft, the A’s popped Addison Russell, a shortstop with a questionable defensive future, out of Florida’s Pace High School. In retrospect, the pick looks like a complete steal, with Russell showing potential five-tool talent. Yet it isn’t difficult to see how he could have kept falling.
Russell’s body became “soft” during his junior year in high school, forcing evaluators to project him as a third baseman. As a senior, however, he turned the bad weight into muscle in order to stick at shortstop, the only position he wanted to play. Displaying great body control with his newly fit frame, Russell raised his draft stock at the Sebring All-Star game in Florida, putting on what some within the industry regard as the greatest performance against Florida’s top competition that anyone has ever seen. Even two years down the road, with Russell raking in Double-A, the old concerns haven’t completely subsided, but the whispers have grown softer.
At the plate, Russell displays blazing-quick hands with bat speed proceeding from a simple, low-maintenance swing. He made tweaks to his stance in late 2013, going from upright with high hands to more crouched and open. Russell can pull inside offerings for power, but his ability to drive balls with authority to all parts of the field, especially right-center, is what stands out. At his peak, Russell projects as a plus hitter with plus power potential, though the raw power is still being converted into game power.
Defensively, Russell shows a plus throwing arm that would well even at the hot corner, boasting arm strength and a quick release. His hands are soft and work in unison, but his body actions aren’t completely fluid. The footwork can play “catch-up” on the field, so there’s still room for improvement. However, the significant improvements he’s made defensively indicate that he has the work ethic and ability to stick at the position long term.
In acquiring Russell, the Cubs have added to an already impressive prospect stockpile of offensive talent, including multiple shortstops in addition to the former Oakland top prospect. Javier Baez continues to play short in Triple-A, with shortstop-turned-second baseman Arismendy Alcantara on the other side of second base. Then there’s big-league shortstop Starlin Castro, who remains one of Chicago’s top talents at the major-league level. Of all the aforementioned names, Russell figures to provide the team with the surest glove work at the position. That doesn’t mean that Castro or Baez will need to move positions, however, as the Cubs view both as assets—as would other teams, if Hoyer and Epstein decide to pursue another swap. –Ron Shah
At the start of his first full season, McKinney was shipped straight to the California League, where the 20-year-old has held his own, showing pop in the stick and a mature approach. Out of high school, McKinney was considered one of the best pure bats available in the class, a hit-tool-first type whose profile was more tweener than first-division because of the questions about the power potential and the defensive skill-set, which will likely be limited to left field at the end of the developmental day because of a fringe arm. Even before the draft, McKinney looked like a good fit for the A's, and the same could be said about the Cubs, as McKinney is an at-bat grinder and a tough out, a player who’s willing to make a pitcher work and take the free pass if he doesn't get a pitch he can drive.
I can see McKinney’s contact rate improving as he continues to mature as a hitter, likely at the expense of some of his game power, which will probably be more gap-to-gap than over-the-fence. When the music stops, McKinney could emerge as a .275 hitter with good on-base ability and some pop, and if he can play a little center field in addition to left (he’s played a majority of his games in CF in 2014), he can carve out a valuable career as a major league regular. The ceiling isn't crazy, but prospects with promising hit tools are safer bets than those with athlete-first/baseball skills-second profiles, despite the reward that often accompanies the latter. –Jason Parks
Fantasy Impact (Bret Sayre and Mauricio Rubio)
There are a couple of ways to look at this from a fantasy angle, but it boils down to three elements: league, park and position. The league and park moves are both going to swing in Russell's favor, as the senior circuit remains the easier place to hit and playing in Wrigley instead of the Coliseum can help Russell’s burgeoning power potential. Positionally, this does drop Russell's odds of staying at shortstop long-term (though not by a ton) as he could be Machado'd in favor of Starlin Castro for a while. However, as we've learned, eligibility (unless it's of the catcher variety) doesn't have much of an effect on a player's overall value in most formats. Plus, the Cubs' unis are really going to make Russell's eyes pop, and that's going to do more in the fantasy world than any eligibility ever could. –Bret Sayre
Hendricks fits an organizational profile that’s taking shape for what the Cubs like in pitchers. Bosio loves him and he might get some starts, but hold out on buying him. He’s not even on the 40-man roster yet.
Beeler had an impressive start in Wrigley and drew comps to Roy Halladay because of his delivery and stuff. He’s not Roy, but he’s going to get some starts as the Cubs try to figure out their rotation in the wake of the Samardzija/Hammel trade. He’s not a bat-misser, so proceed with caution. He’s a reserve play in NL-only leagues right now
Straily will start in Triple-A Iowa, but he’s a pitcher with slider issues who has to fix his command to be effective. Bosio has worked with that profile before, as R.J. noted. I don’t expect much out of Straily this yea,r but he’s an interesting add in deep keepers and dynasty formats.
Wada is a short lefty with an 88-mph fastball and a command profile. He’s a back-end starter in real life and a worthy add only if you’re desperate for pitching in NL-only formats. –Mauricio Rubio
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson