In dealing away everyday players for David Price and Jon Lester, the Tigers and Athletics may have done more harm than good to their playoff hopes.
It’s not often that we see contending teams trade one of their everyday players in the heat of a pennant race, but both the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics did just that on July 31. With the non-waiver trade deadline bearing down on them, both teams dealt an outfielder in order to acquire a left-handed ace for their rotation. The Tigers bid farewell to centerfielder Austin Jackson as part of a three-team, five-player deal for David Price, and the A’s sent leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes. At the time, the two teams appeared to be bolstering their rotation for a deep October run. After all, the Tigers had a five-game lead in the American League Central on the morning of July 31, and the A’s had a 2 1/2-game lead in the AL West and the best record in baseball.
Since then, however, both teams have posted losing records in large part due to a decline in scoring. The Angels have caught the A’s in the West and are actually a game ahead of them in the loss column, and similarly one point ahead of them for the best winning percentage in baseball. The Tigers have nearly fallen out of a playoff spot completely, now trailing the Royals by two games in the Central and sitting just a half-game ahead of the Mariners, to whom they traded Jackson and who just took two of three from the Tigers in Detroit over the weekend. Those trades are still fairly recent, so small-sample-size caveats are very much in play, but from what we have seen thus far, there’s evidence to suggest both teams were overly aggressive in their pursuit of pitching reinforcements and failed to appreciate properly the damage they were doing to the depth of their lineups.
Let’s start with the Tigers, who have fallen furthest and whose lineup is most consistent on a day-to-day basis. The Tigers were 58-47 (.552) on the morning of Aug. 1 and had scored 4.7 runs per game to that point in the season, but have gone 8-9 since while scoring just 3.8 runs per game since. Jackson wasn’t having a particularly productive season before the trade: He hit .273/.332/.398 for the Tigers, good for a 98 OPS+, meaning he was effectively a league-average hitter. That's true even when compared to other centerfielders, who have hit .264/.325/.392 thus far this season, just a tick below Jackson’s rates with Detroit. Jackson’s 11 stolen bases came in 16 attempts, a poor 69-percent success rate that detracted further from his production, and his fielding was ordinary. With just one year of arbitration-eligible team control remaining, Jackson seemed like an expendable player, particularly in a trade for one of the AL's best pitchers in Price.
Indeed, the Tigers' centerfielders have hit .293/.321/.440 since the trade, an upgrade on Jackson’s production. That production has come almost entirely from Rajai Davis, who has hit better as a centerfielder than as a leftfielder both this year and throughout his career. Ezequiel Carrera has also started seven games in center for the Tigers since the trade, but has hit just .200/.200/.300.
Prior to the trade, Davis had been splitting time with J.D. Martinez in left, so to evaluate properly the impact of Jackson’s departure on the Tigers' lineup, we need to take into account the team’s leftfield production as well. There we find that the Tigers’ leftfielders hit .301/.342/.443 through July 31 but have hit just .208/.260/.333 since. The biggest reason for that dip is that Martinez (who has also seen time in right and at designated hitter but has made the majority of his starts in left) hit .325/.363/.605 in 248 plate appearances through July 31, but has hit just .224/.286/.379 since.
If we then combine the production of Detroit’s left and centerfielders both before and after the trade (and, remember, Jackson did start in center on July 31, though he was removed mid-game in order to allow the trade to be completed), we get this:
CF+LF through July 31: .286/.335/.420
CF+LF since Aug. 1: .252/.290/.388
The Tigers' combined production at those positions has clearly played a role in their current slump, and while the primary issue has been the sharp drop in Martinez’s production in left, trading Jackson has forced the Detroit to play one of Martinez or Carrera every day at the position not occupied by Davis.
The Tigers’ problems run deeper than the spot vacated by Jackson, though. After a hot July, Torii Hunter has hit .208/.288/.264 in August. Ian Kinsler, who typically fades in the second half of the season, has hit .238/.259/.293 since July 1. Rookie Eugenio Suarez, who looked like the solution at shortstop in June has hit .178/.229/.289 in August. Even Miguel Cabrera has seen his power decline in each of the last three months and hasn’t homered in his last 67 plate appearances. Still, with Kinsler exhibiting a typical decline and unproven bats such as Suarez, J.D. Martinez, Davis, and rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos in the lineup, the Tigers may have taken the performance of their offense for granted in trading Jackson.
As for Price, he has made just three starts for Detroit thus far, one of which saw him give up four runs in a Tigers loss. He was excellent in the other two, both Tigers victories, but only earned the win in one because it took the Detroit lineup 12 innings to score a fourth run in the other.
As for the A’s, they were 66-41 (.617) on July 31, an off-day on their schedule, and had scored exactly five runs per game to that point in the season. Since then they have gone 7-10 (.412) and scored 3.6 runs per game. The Athletics' lineup is much more of a jumble, with 2012 Manager of the Year Bob Melvin using multiple platoons and rotating the likes of Brandon Moss, Stephen Vogt, John Jaso and Alberto Callaspo through multiple positions while also compensating for injuries to the likes of Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Craig Gentry, among others. However, Cespedes was one of the few constants in that lineup. We have every reason to believe that had Cespedes not been traded, he would have started all 17 of Oakland's games to this point in August.
Fortunately for our purposes here, the two outfielders the A’s acquired on July 31, Gomes and Sam Fuld, have combined for exactly 17 starts in Cespedes’ absence. That pair isn't a perfect replacement for Cespedes, as Fuld’s first role on the team in early August was to replace Billy Burns, who himself was an injury replacement for centerfielder Coco Crisp, and the pair has started in the same game three times. Still, it’s nearly impossible to determine who else might have sat in favor of Cespedes had he not been traded, and Cespedes did make two spot-starts in center in late July, so he very well may have made more in Crisp’s continued absence in August if he had remained on the team. It’s also worth noting that the A’s traded for Fuld only after trading Cespedes on the morning of July 31, the impression there being that he was indeed acquired to improve their outfield depth in the wake of the earlier deal. I’m thus going to use those 17 starts by Gomes and Fuld as the “replacement” production for Cespedes here.
Like Jackson, Cespedes wasn’t having a tremendously productive season before the trade, hitting .256/.303/.464 with 17 home runs to go with fairly average defense, his outstanding arm making up for his sub-par routes and hands, as summarized by this play. At the plate, his power similarly compensated for his poor on-base percentage. He was undeniably an asset, however, evidenced in part by the fact that one of the smartest managers (and organizations) in baseball had him hitting third from mid-June through the trade. Since the trade, Gomes and Fuld have combined to hit .267/.340/.289 in their 17 starts, with Gomes, the player more directly intended to help replace Cespedes, going 2-for-12 without an extra-base hit in five starts.
That’s damning, but those are tiny and imperfectly aligned samples, and Cespedes himself had hit just .198/.221/.352 in July (Jackson, by comparison, was red-hot in July for Detroit). The larger problem, as with Detroit, appears to be the degree to which trading Cespedes sapped the team’s depth at the plate. Vogt has hit just .229/.260/.417 in August. Jaso has hit .125/.205/.200. Moss hasn’t homered since July 24, a span of 83 plate appearances. Crisp, hindered by degenerative issues with his neck, has hit .130/.226/.196 on the month. In trading Cespedes, the A’s jettisoned a big bat that might have been able to counteract some of those slumps and allow Melvin to reduce the playing time of one or more of those men. As with the Tigers, the A’s appear to have overestimated the strength and dependability of their lineup.
As for Lester, the A’s won his first three starts, providing him with ample run support in two pedestrian quality starts and cruising to victory in his first shutout of the season, a 3-0 win. However, they lost his last outing on Sunday by a score of 4-3 in part because they were unable to score more than two runs off the Braves’ Mike Minor, who entered that game with a 5.33 ERA and had allowed three or more runs in each of his previous five starts. Lester has pitched well for Oakland, but only once in those four games has his performance positively impacted the outcome of the game.
It’s still early. The A’s still have a share of their division lead, and the Tigers are still within striking distance of the Royals. It could well be that both teams pull out of their current offensive slumps and that Lester and Price do indeed help pitch them deep into October. However, the early returns suggest that in trying to tip the scales in their favor, both teams may have unbalanced themselves.