Billy Beane isn’t going to rip everyone off. It isn’t 2002 anymore, and even if it was, Beane has never been a guy who needs to be clearly acing a trade in order to make it, no matter how Moneyball made it sound.
Late Friday night, the Oakland Athletics dealt shortstop prospect Addison Russell, outfield prospect Billy McKinney and pitcher Dan Straily to the Chicago Cubs for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, bolstering a rotation that so far has gotten by on outstanding — and surprising — seasons from journeymen Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez, along with a strong first full season from young starter Sonny Gray. In return they gave up a promising Top-10 shortstop prospect in Russell, the No. 2 prospect in the Athletics organization (and last year’s first-round pick) in McKinney, and Straily, a guy best suited for being a swingman or depth starter at Triple-A, which is exactly where he will start off for the Cubs.
Obviously this move torpedoes the Cubs rotation in 2014, but there’s little question that Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer doesn’t see this season as his team’s battleground; he’s fighting for the future, the same way he always has. Russell and McKinney are a great return for a pair of older starting pitchers who are having great first halves but enough inconsistency in their records to wonder if they can keep them up. There are questions about whether or not Russell will stick at shortstop — he is potentially a third baseman at the major league level — and the middle infield is already a busy place for Chicago, with Starlin Castro cemented on the MLB roster through the end of the decade and prospect Javier Baez also claiming some future role on the team.
Baez, however, has severe questions about his long-term outlook not just as an infielder — he could probably do with a move to third base or right field himself — but as a major league player in general. He has been absolutely unimpressive for Triple-A Iowa this season, barely managing a .730 OPS in the hitter-friendly PCL, and he’s already struck out 103 times in 317 plate appearances. It’s not only sensible to have a fallback plan in Russell in case Baez turns out to be unable to make the leap in the way which Cubs fans are expecting, but it’s good to have redundancy like this in general. The only issue, of course, is that the Cubs still have no young pitching of note in the organization at or above A-ball outside of C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson, and neither of those two is anywhere near as impressive as the array of position player prospects Hoyer has drafted, signed, or dealt for. This is less of an issue if the new and improved Jake Arrieta is a legitimate ace at the top of the Chicago rotation, but we probably won’t know whether he’s just having one good season or whether he’s figured out something sustainable until sometime in 2015 (barring any earlier regression in his command and stuff).
From the Athletics’ perspective, Russell and McKinney is a high price to pay for the return — both are young guys who were drafted out of high school, but Russell was burning his way up the Athletics organization, and was projected to see some time in the majors in 2015 before he was dealt to Chicago. This is essentially an all-in move by Oakland to acquire pieces at an area of clear uncertainty for the club in a sellers’ market; they paid through the teeth for Samardzija and Hammel, but they got what they needed to complement Gray, Kazmir and Chavez. Trading with Oakland general manager Billy Beane has acquired a sort of mystical component over the years due to the breathless devotion of a certain subset of fans to the Michael Lewis book Moneyball and its portrayal of Beane as one of the shrewdest, most terrifyingly capable trade negotiators in the game, but Beane has never approached trades the way we discovered the current Houston Astros do recently, by asking for almost insultingly high returns on their trade pieces just to see if someone will say yes.
Beane is the guy who traded Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street for Matt Holliday, and the guy who dealt Gio Gonzalez for a package whose notable pieces so far have been Tommy Milone and Derek Norris; he’s perfectly fine with the other team in a deal getting value so long as he accomplishes what he needs to accomplish. The real teams GMs should beware trading with are the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers; it’s rare anything good comes out of swapping players with Andrew Friedman or Dave Dombrowski.
In the end, it’s a good trade for both sides, but one that could look bad for Oakland if Samardzija and Hammel immediately start pitching like they have in the past instead of continuing what they’ve done in the present. Chicago gets more good position player prospects and another reclamation project pitcher in Straily, while Oakland bolsters the one questionable unit on what is otherwise the best team in baseball. It will be interesting to see how the Angels and Mariners respond.