Billy Beane isn't settling for half-measures. Having kicked off the summer trading season with the July 4 blockbuster that landed Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel at the expense of Oakland's top two prospects, the Athletics' general manager has further bolstered the rotation of the best team in baseball just six hours ahead of the non-waiver trading deadline by landing Jon Lester — this time without further denting his prospect list.
Via Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, the A's have acquired Lester — believed to be the top pitcher available at this year’s deadline — as well as outfielder Jonny Gomes and cash in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes and the second pick in next year’s Competitive Balance Round B, which follows the second round proper of the amateur draft. It's a stunning move on both sides, in that the A's (66-41, .617) already boast the league's best record and most productive rotation, and that for all of the blue-chip prospects mentioned as potential headliners in a return for Lester, the Red Sox (48-60, .444) have instead added a 28-year-old outfielder and something on the order of the 70th pick in next year's draft.
As I noted the other day, the 30-year-old Lester — who was scratched from Wednesday evening's start against the Blue Jays in anticipation of a deal — has been at the top of his game this season. Though he has received lousy support from Boston’s defense via a .312 batting average on balls in play, his 6.8 innings per start, 76-percent quality start rate, 4.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 2.62 FIP, 2.52 ERA and 155 ERA+ are all career bests, while his strikeout rate — 9.4 per nine or 25.7 percent of all hitters faced — isn't far off. Whereas his sour performance (4.82 ERA, 0.7 Wins Above Replacement) was one of the centerpieces of Boston's lost 2012 season, this time around he has succeeded in spite of the team's struggles. In fact, he has actually outpitched David Price — who was previously believed to be the top pitcher available at the deadline but who remains a Ray at this writing — in terms of run prevention (2.93 FIP, 3.11 ERA, 121 ERA+) and value (3.0 WAR to 2.6). Unlike Price, who has one more year of arbitration eligibility, Lester will be a free agent at the end of this season, and he may well head back to Boston, though the Sox will have to ante up far more than the reported four years and $70 million they were said to have offered during the past offseason.
The battle-tested Lester has posted a 3.64 ERA and 120 ERA+ through his nine seasons with the Red Sox, not to mention a 2.11 ERA in 76 2/3 postseason innings over 11 starts and two relief appearances. The latter line includes his microscopic 0.43 ERA in three World Series starts while helping Boston win titles in 2007 and 2013. Such credentials had to be particularly appealing to Beane, whose Oakland rotation leads the league in both ERA (3.32) and quality start rate. For as good as the current unit — Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Samardzija and Hammel — has been, it’s short on both postseason experience and heavy workloads.
Gray (two postseason starts with a 2.08 ERA), Hammel (three starts with a 4.80 ERA) and Kazmir (seven starts and a 5.20 ERA) don't have long histories of October success, while Kazmir and Samardzija are the only ones of that group to top 180 innings in a regular season, each having done so once. Lester, on the other hand, has averaged 205 innings for the past six seasons, with a low of 191 2/3 in 2011 — the only one of those six seasons in which he served a stint on the disabled list (he missed 14 games due to a lat strain). Back in 2006-07, his first two seasons in the majors, he missed roughly half a season while undergoing treatment for lymphoma, but thankfully has been cancer-free since.
Though Hammel has been rocked for a 9.53 ERA through three starts since being acquired, it’s apparently going to be Chavez who moves to the bullpen to accommodate Lester’s arrival. The 30-year-old Chavez, who had made just two major league starts prior to 2014, has resurrected his career with the addition of a slow curve and cutter, putting up strong numbers (3.44 ERA, 8.5 strikeouts per nine), but his 125 2/3 innings are already 68 1/3 beyond last year’s total and 58 1/3 beyond his career high. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make the occasional spot start in order to give the other starters breathers as they head for uncharted territory, innings-wise. Meanwhile, in a complementary move, the team traded 27-year-old lefty Tommy Milone, who put up a 3.55 ERA in 16 starts before being bumped to Triple-A by the Samardzija blockbuster, to the Twins in exchange for 32-year-old outfielder Sam Fuld, who played seven games with Oakland earlier this year before being lost in an April roster crunch.
The left-handed Fuld (.263/.356/.366 with 13 steals in 228 plate appearances this year) and the right-handed Gomes (.234/.329/.354 with six homers) — who clouted 18 homers as a key role player on the 2012 AL West-winning A's — form a natural platoon that should be able to hold down leftfield in place of Cespedes, though unless the 33-year-old Gomes rediscovers his power (.244/.335/.446 career), the team will miss the punch provided by the two-time Home Run Derby champion. Oakland's outfield is currently rather banged up, with Craig Gentry having just hit the disabled list due to a fracture in his right hand and Coco Crisp — his platoon partner in centerfield — day to day with neck soreness. Melvin has fielded six different outfields in Oakland's last six games, with Brandon Moss and the recently-recalled Billy Burns in the mix with Josh Reddick in the absence of the centerfield platoon. As he was able to do with Cespedes, Melvin could call upon Fuld’s ability to play center until Gentry returns.
As for Boston's end of the deal, in Cespedes, the Sox are getting a power-hitting righty with a highlight-reel caliber howitzer for an arm, but also a less disciplined hitter than the team usually fields. Now in his third major league season since defecting from Cuba, Cespedes is hitting .256/.303/.464 with 17 homers for a 114 OPS+, a bit below his career marks (.262/.318/.470, 119 OPS+); he's drawn an unintentional walk in only 5.7 percent of his plate appearances this year, and 6.1 percent for his career. His 12 assists are tied with Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr. for the lead among outfielders in either league; via those, his +9 Defensive Runs Saved is a career best — he's at +2 for his three seasons — and his 3.0 WAR is within hailing distance of his career high of 3.9, set during his 2012 rookie campaign.
Cespedes is making $10.5 million this year and will make the same amount next year, the final one of the four-year, $36 million deal he signed with Oakland in February 2012. According to FanGraphs' David Cameron, a clause in his current contract requires him to be non-tendered upon the expiration of that deal so that he can reach free agency despite being two years short in service time; thus Boston won't be able to net a draft pick by making him a one-year qualifying offer, though they are free to re-sign him. That strategy dovetails with the front office's post-2012 Dodgers blockbuster mindset of avoiding long-term entanglements with its veteran players; Dustin Pedroia is the only position player on more than a three-year deal, and the team's only player signed beyond 2015.
Acquiring Cespedes does mean that general manager Ben Cherington has forgone a chance to fortify one of the game's top farm systems by adding another blue-chip prospect, though the team is breaking in several youngsters (Bradley, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rubby De La Rosa, Christian Vazquez, Allen Webster and Brandon Workman) and has other near-ready pitchers and position players in the pipeline. De La Rosa, Webster and Workman were all part of the Sox rotation's most recent cycle following the Jake Peavy trade and the Lester scratch; with Felix Doubront traded to the Cubs on Tuesday and John Lackey reportedly headed to St. Louis, Cherington will need to scare up another starter, but that's a secondary concern for a club running last in the AL East and obviously looking to next year.
The competitive balance pick more or less covers for the compensation that would have come with making a qualifying offer to Lester, had he departed via that route. One of 12 picks awarded in a recent lottery involving teams with the 10 smallest markets and 10 smallest revenue pools, the pick that Boston acquired will be the second one following the regular second round of next year's draft. In addition to being tradable, it can boost the team's available bonus pool money to sign any of its picks from the first 10 rounds; in 2013 and 2014, Round B picks added $790,350 in bonus money.
In the end, this is a very bold move for the A's, one that's geared toward both ensuring that they win the AL West (where they have a 2 1/2 game lead over the Angels) and that they advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for just the second time during the Beane era. The A's lost in the Division Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2012 and 2013, advancing to the AL Championship Series on the current GM's watch only in 2006. And as with the one-two punch created by acquiring both Samardzija and Hammel, one sidelight to acquiring Lester is that they keep him out of the hands of their potential competitors.
For the Red Sox, the trade of such a popular homegrown player is the inevitable price of their post-championship collapse, albeit a potentially less painful one than most if both Lester and Boston's front office are sincere about reuniting after the season. Once Lester tests the open market, anything can happen, but that issue is three months away. For the moment, he's got a more pressing priority.