Billy Beane has made a lot of big trades over the last calendar year, and some of them have gone over better than others. Specifically, there has been a string of moves dating back to July that have caused many to lose faith in the Oakland Athletics general manager:
- Blue-chip prospect Addison Russell seemed like a steep price for short-term pitching help.
- Dealing Yoenis Cespedes midseason angered a lot of fans.
- Trading Josh Donaldson caught many off guard and seemed premature to some.
- Almost nobody was happy with the return for Brandon Moss.
The first two trades were part of a movement to aggressively pursue the World Series title in 2014. The latter two trades were the beginning of the aftermath, the re-tooling process brought on by the imminent closing of the core's competitive window. There are lots of great arguments for and against all of those deals, and none of them were slam-dunk hits like many of Beane's past swaps.
Well, consider Billy back on track. With the wheels already moving toward a younger roster full of upside and long-term team control, All-Stars Jeff Samardzija and Derek Norris were two more obvious trade chips to cash in. This time, the returns are strong and it's easy to see how they make the A's better both now and in the future.
Shark to Chicago, Norris to San Diego
When Donaldson and Moss were sent packing, a lot of the logic behind the moves involved their upcoming declines. I don't feel that way about Shark, though. Even at age 30 next season, I think he's going to break out and have a career year. He was already pretty awesome last year -- around 220 innings, 200 Ks, 126 ERA+ -- and I think he can at least match those numbers in Chicago. The thing is, though, that he's only under contract for 2015, and Oakland is more interested in long-term assets right now. In return for that one year, for 32 awesome starts, Billy got 24 combined seasons of useful players: six each of a possible starting shortstop, a catcher with power, a right-hander who could be a lockdown reliever, and a high-minors lottery ticket who might become an excellent hitter.
Norris is a different story. This trade wasn't like the others. Norris still has four years of team control left, and he isn't even eligible for arbitration yet. He's also not old yet, as he'll be 26 next season. But his defensive reputation is in the tank, he still hasn't fully figured out how to hit MLB right-handers, and last year his bat disappeared in the second half as he battled wear-and-tear injuries. Perhaps this was Billy foreseeing an early decline (or a position switch), or maybe he simply chose to sell high on an All-Star campaign while he was in a selling mood. Either way, for four years of Norris he got six years of an MLB-ready starting pitcher and six more of a potentially dominant MLB-ready reliever.
Add it all up, and what have we got? Out are a top-of-the-rotation starter and a catcher with right-handed power. In are a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, a catcher with right-handed power, a viable shortstop, two live bullpen arms, and an extra Triple-A lottery ticket to boot. In other words, Billy replaced what he lost and filled some other holes in the process.
Replacing the departed
Without Shark in the rotation, we can assume Sonny, Kazmir, Pomeranz and Chavez are probably locks to start. Jesse Hahn seems likely to be the front-runner for the last spot, over the likes of Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Chris Bassitt. Hahn was acquired in the Norris deal, and he comes with high praise. He's a right-hander who turns 26 next summer and has a Tommy John surgery in his rear-view mirror. The quick details from John Sickels of Minor League Ball:
Born July 30, 1989, the 6-5, 190 pound right-hander shows a low-to-mid-90s sinker, a big-breaking power curveball, and a decent changeup. He's come a long way with his command compared to his early days in college, and when he's right he looks like a number three starter, sometimes (at his very best) even more than that. Durability is his main concern.
In the Majors last year, Hahn threw his fastball in the low/mid-90s and his curve in the mid-70s, with the curve coming on slightly more than a quarter of his offerings. He struck out nearly a batter per inning, but his walk rate was a bit high and it's tough to put a lot of stock in his low hit rate given that he pitched half his innings in Petco Park. As for the durability, he racked up 115 professional innings last year, and he threw either six or seven full frames seven times over an eight-start span in San Diego. Here's what he looks like in action:
This isn't a Cahill/Parker situation, where there's a real chance that Hahn could be better than Shark right away. I truly think Shark will be awesome for the White Sox in 2015, whereas a best-case scenario for Hahn next year is more likely a No. 3 type with a short leash to protect his health. However, that means that Hahn could be an average-or-better starter right away, and the marginal downgrade from one to the other won't cost the team a lot of actual wins. Meanwhile, the A's get Hahn for many years beyond this one and he still has upside to be more than that No. 3 guy as time goes on.
There's no guarantee that Josh Phegley, acquired in the Shark trade, will start the season on Oakland's roster. However, he seems like the obvious choice at the moment, since the team is without a catcher who hits right-handed to platoon with John Jaso and Stephen Vogt. In fact, Phegley seems like the perfect fit. His calling card on offense is his power, as he knocked 23 homers in Triple-A last year and hit another three in 38 plate appearances for the White Sox. That's good news, because the A's need some power. Here are two of his big-league shots from last year:
His calling card on defense is that he's thrown out nearly half of all the runners who have tried to steal on him in the minors; his MLB rate is 29%. That's a welcome sight for A's fans who are tired of seeing opponents run wild on Jaso and Norris. Of course, Phegley doesn't have anywhere near the plate discipline that Norris has and he'll hit for an even lower average, so once again there is every reason to expect that Norris will be better in 2015. But Phegley should be competent in what is essentially a half-time role, and it shouldn't cost the A's much on the bottom line.
Counting the profits
The reward for those two marginal downgrades can be seen in a couple other key areas. Marcus Semien isn't a sure bet to stick as an everyday shortstop, but he wouldn't have to come near his ceiling to match Jed Lowrie's 2014 season. If Semien plugs the shortstop hole for a few years, that alone will have been worth the price of one season of Shark, given the premium on middle infielders right now. At the very least, he's got the arm for it:
With Ryan Cook and Dan Otero as the only reliable right-handers in the pen, Beane also replenished his relief corps with two more high-upside righties. R.J. Alvarez (from the Norris trade) has struck out more than 13 batters per nine innings in his career in the minors, and last year he translated that into a 1.25 ERA in Double-A after cutting down his walk rate. He took his 95+ fastball and his mid-80s slider to San Diego in September and tossed eight MLB innings, finishing with nine Ks and a 1.13 ERA. He's ready to go, and he could be a high-octane set-up man right away:
Chris Bassitt's future isn't certain yet. Most reports seem to have him pegged as a reliever, including that of our own Spencer Silva. Although he's mostly been starting the last few years and even did so at the MLB level, he showed what he can do in short relief in the Arizona Fall League, striking out 22 batters in 13 innings over six appearances with an 0.69 ERA. Nathaniel Stoltz of Fangraphs wrote up a fantastic report on Bassitt prior to last season:
Many point to Bassitt as a potential #4 starter, citing his solid overall performance and broad arsenal of pitches. While he does have arm strength, stamina, four offerings with some utility, reasonable control, and decent groundball ability, his weakness against lefthanders may negate these broad strengths and make him more likely to return to the bullpen down the line. It's easy to imagine Bassitt being a reliever who could focus more on the fastball-slider combination, facing largely righthanders and not having to work multiple times through the order; further, this would allow him to work in the mid-90s with more consistency rather than just occasionally touching that velocity. His deception, velocity, and movement could make him a terror on righthanders in the middle innings, and he's clearly proven he can get big results against his fellow northpaws.
For the sake of staying conservative and tempering expectations, let's assume that Bassitt is destined for the bullpen. If he surprises us by sticking as a No. 4 starter then all the better, since even decent starters are more valuable than all but the very best relief aces. As a reliever, he would still slot in as another hard-throwing right-hander with big strikeout potential. Here he is in his MLB debut striking out Miguel Cabrera:
Rangel Ravelo is just icing on the cake. He's the lottery ticket who could develop into a pretty good hitter but who could also fail to pan out. If you want to read more on him, I'll direct you back to Spencer's scouting report, but I want to acknowledge that he exists and that he's yet another asset picked up in the Shark trade. That's the kind of return that we're used to in these big Billy Beane trades -- some MLB-ready pieces, but also an extra lotto ticket tacked on at the end. Josh Donaldson himself was once just such an afterthought.
Billy Beane traded out one pitcher/catcher battery for another. Hahn/Phegley doesn't have the name recognition of Samardzija/Norris, but there may not be a massive drop in production. To make up the lost margin, the A's now have a new shortstop and a revamped bullpen that no longer needs to rely on Evan Scribner, plus an extra prospect to groom. Beane traded away two All-Stars, and he plugged two big holes in his roster without opening a new one. He also turned five years of team control over two players into 36 years of control over six players.
As usual, I'll miss the two guys heading out. I fell hard for Shark when he got here, between the big velocity and the low walk rate and the shaggy hair. Norris is fun to watch when he gets fired up, and he has a couple of immortal highlights in the green and gold. But if your offseason plan is to cash in on peak values, hit the reset button, and make your roster younger, then this is the way to do it. Billy Beane has made some polarizing decisions lately and gotten some weird-looking returns on trades, but it's hard to argue with the packages he got for Shark and Norris. They truly do make the A's better both now and for years to come.