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Cubs send Samardzija, Hammel to A's for prospect Addison Russell, others

The first blockbuster of the 2014 trading-deadline period went off like a Fourth of July firework Friday night as the A’s acquired two of the top starting pitchers on the market from the Cubs in exchange for one of the top prospects in baseball, landing Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in exchange for shortstop prospect Addison Russell, teenaged outfield prospect Billy McKinney, and right-handed starter Dan Straily. Several reports say the Cubs will also receive a player to be named or cash.

This is a fascinating trade for both teams for a variety of reasons and one that comes as a complete shock. To begin with, the A’s have been the best team in baseball by every possible measure this season, including actual record, run differential, and third-order wins. What’s more, their rotation’s collective 3.30 ERA is the lowest in the American League. Meanwhile, Starlin Castro, the Cubs’ 24-year-old shortstop who is signed through 2019 with a team option for 2020, has rediscovered his All-Star form while hitting for more power than ever before, while Cubs shortstop prospect Javier Baez has hit .301/.354/.538 over his last 48 games at Triple-A. For the A’s, who have Jed Lowrie hitting .220/.312/.328 in his walk year at shortstop, to trade one of the top shortstop prospects in baseball to the Cubs for veteran starting pitching is, at least on the surface, a thoroughly unexpected event.

Taking a closer look at the A’s rotation, it is possible to see why the A’s may have lacked some confidence in the group going forward. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir have been elite pitchers this season, but Tommy Milone, despite his six scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Friday, is a league-average soft-tosser, converted reliever Jesse Chavez has been similarly ordinary since the end of April (4.02 ERA, 2.13 K/BB in 11 starts), and the fifth spot in the rotation was being filled, albeit capably, by lefty journeyman Brad Mills, who had been keeping the spot warm for ex-prospect Drew Pomeranz while the latter was on the disabled list with a broken glove hand. Still, there’s no guarantee that Samardzija or Hammel will be clear improvements over Pomeranz, who had a 3.21 ERA in eight starts before hitting the disabled list and is due to return in a week or two, or whichever of Chavez or Milone loses his spot.

Hammel has been excellent this season, shrinking his walk rate below 2 per nine innings and striking out a career-best 24 percent of opposing hitters to produce a 4.62 K/BB ratio and a 2.98 ERA (129 ERA+) over 16 starts, a performance resulting at least in part from his decision to emphasize his slider at the expense of his curve and changeup. That performance is out of line with Hammel’s career, but not as much as those of Chavez, Pomeranz, or even Kazmir this season. Samardzija, meanwhile, has increased his use of his sinker, cutter, and slider in recent years, improving his groundball rate in turn. That combined with similarly strong peripherals (3.32 K/BB but just seven home runs allowed in 17 starts) has resulted in a 2.83 ERA (135 ERA+) for the Shark this season.

That being established, the track records of the two pitchers the A’s acquired are far from unassailable. The 31-year-old Hammel, who is joining his fifth organization and will be a free agent this fall, has a career 96 ERA+, hit the disabled list three times in the previous four seasons, most recently for a strained flexor mass in his pitching elbow late last year, and was merely league average over the course of two seasons for the Orioles before joining the Cubs. Samardzija, the more sought-after commodity, is a 29-year-old with a career 101 ERA+ with just one team-controlled season remaining. Samardzija got off to a fantastic start this season, one notable for the Cubs failing to deliver him a win in his first ten starts despite a 1.46 ERA over that span, but in six June outings, he has posted a 5.45 ERA while his opponents have hit .305/.367/.511 against him. Bad luck on balls in play has played a role in Samardzija’s June struggles, but they are also a reminder of the size of the chance the A’s are taking with this trade. Both pitchers could benefit from the move from hitting-friendly Wrigley Field to Oakland’s pitching-friendly Coliseum, but that benefit will be balanced to a large degree by the move to the designated hitter league.

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At the moment, Russell, who was rated the 14th-best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America coming into the year and 7th-best by Baseball Prospectus, looks to be far and away the best player in this trade, and the Cubs acquired not only all six of his team-controlled years, but could have him in the major leagues as soon as next year. The 20-year-old Russell lost two months to a hamstring strain earlier this year, but he’s back on the field and producing at Double A. Last year he hit .275/.377/.508 with 17 home runs, 10 triples, and 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts as a teenager in high-A while playing a smooth shortstop. Russell may not approach 80 on the scouting scale in any individual tool, but he’s still a five-tool stud at shortstop, one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the game, and a player with considerable potential for further growth given his youth. It’s far less difficult to understand why the Cubs traded for Russell despite their apparent glut at shortstop than it is to understand why the A’s traded him for Samardzija and Hammel.

Then there’s the fact that Russell wasn’t the only player the A’s gave up in this trade. Billy McKinney is a legitimate outfield prospect who was taken with the 24th pick in the 2013 draft and is holding his own as a 19-year-old centerfielder in A-ball thus far this season. McKinney is a long way from both the majors and the player he may ultimately prove to be, but that player could be an everyday leftfielder who can hit for average with good, but not great, power and patience. The A’s also gave up Dan Straily, a 25-year-old righty who made 27 starts for them last year with league-average results and is under team control through 2018. Straily has struggled with the longball this season both in the majors and at Triple-A, and has merely middling stuff, but he has nonetheless struck out 182 men in 161 1/3 Triple-A innings and turned in a quality start for the A’s in last year’s Division Series after posting a 3.15 ERA in his final 15 starts of the 2013 regular season. Straily’s extreme fly-ball rates are a bad fit for Wrigley Field, but he could slot into the Cubs’ rotation right away.

As for Russell, it will be fascinating to see how the Cubs figure out how to get him, Castro, Baez, and their top 2013 pick Kris Bryant, a third baseman with tremendous power currently hitting .339/.409/.729 after his first 16 games at Triple-A, into the same lineup next year. The assumption is that Bryant will end up in left field with the strong-armed Baez possibly moving to third. Baez played a bit of second base in spring training, but that would now seem to be Castro’s ultimate destination. Add Anthony Rizzo at first and prospects Alberto Almora in center and Jorge Soler in right, and the 2016 Cubs lineup could be frighteningly good, or at least remarkably talented and young (Rizzo, who turns 25 next month is the oldest of those seven players). That said, that projected 2016 Cubs team still lacks pitching. The assumption had been that the Cubs would use their top trade chips this season, specifically Samardzija and Hammel, to acquire the young pitching their rebuilding effort requires, but those chips have been cashed in with the middling Straily the only pitcher added to the organization

That’s yet another reason that this trade was a shocker. Another is that, if the A’s were willing to deal Russell for a short-term rotation fix, what prevented them from using him to pry David Price away from the Rays? Price, after all, is a true ace, unlike either of the pitchers the A’s just acquired from the Cubs. The Rays may have preferred to get pitching in return, but as the Cubs clearly realized, Russell is too good a player not to acquire for a pitcher you intended to trade anyway. Perhaps the Rays aren’t as interested in trading Price as we think. Perhaps the A’s see Samardzija as a pitcher they are more likely to be able to afford to extend.

Ultimately, I find it difficult to believe that Samardzija and Hammels are going to make the A’s a significantly better team given how well the A’s have already been playing this season. The trade may protect against regression in the A’s rotation and smooth their path to the postseason, but I don’t see either pitcher as a difference-maker come October, and with both approaching free agency, the A’s could have little to show for this deal just as Russell is emerging as a star for the Cubs. Five years from now, we’ll likely be referring to this as “The Addison Russell Trade,” a coup for the Cubs, even if they didn’t land the pitching their system so desperately needs.