Boy, that escalated quickly. Within hours of the non-waiver trade deadline, the Oakland Athletics dealt Yoenis Cespedes and Tommy Milone in two separate deals for Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, and Sam Fuld. There is so much to react to in that list of names, so much positive and so much negative, that I don't even know where to start. I'm in a green-and-gold case of emotion, and I just don't know what to think.
Let's slow down and look at the objective facts in front of us. We woke up this morning, July 31, to news that Cespedes had been sent to the Boston Red Sox for Lester and Gomes. Lester was the top prize on the trade market, so the A's both scored big and prevented their rivals from doing so. Gomes will take Cespedes' spot in left field, and Oakland sent a draft pick to Boston to even things out. Then, about an hour later, Milone was shipped to the Minnesota Twins for Fuld. Milone was in Triple-A, so this one doesn't take anything away from the MLB roster and there is no loss in depth since the addition of Lester evens things out in terms of quantity. Fuld, of course, was on Oakland's Opening Day roster, and he played seven games with the A's before being waived to make room for Craig Gentry. He will likely man center field most days while Coco Crisp and Gentry are both banged up, and when one of them returns Fuld will probably be woven into the interchangeable fabric that is Bob Melvin's lineup card and split time in left and center.
The A's are adding three players to their 25-man roster, but subtracting only one. That means that two more guys need to be removed to make room. One will likely be Billy Burns, who was just a stopgap for now anyway and who is redundant with Fuld in the fold. The other will have to be a pitcher, whether that means a trade of Jason Hammel, or a demotion of Evan Scribner with Hammel or Jesse Chavez moving to the bullpen, or some other third option that we never would have thought of. Maybe he'll trade Sonny Gray for Colin Kaepernick next. Who knows; Billy Beane has gone completely off-script at this point.
The comings and goings of each of these players pulls at the heartstrings of A's fans in different ways. They also each make sense in baseball terms.
You know that one TV show, where that one core main character is unexpectedly killed off and you're caught with your mouth agape? That's how my day started, and it's probably how yours started too. I woke up at 7:00 a.m., figuring that I'd get up ahead of any big news, and I still missed it by 10 minutes. I stared at the computer screen for nearly an hour, unable to move or to process what had happened. It finally sunk in, but it still feels weird that Cespedes won't be in the lineup on Friday.
With the exception of our own BWH, who specifically suggested a Cespedes/Lester/Gomes swap on Wednesday, nobody saw this coming. We knew that Beane was willing to part with prospects for a better shot at the World Series, but I, at least, was under the impression that he wouldn't subtract from the MLB-best active roster. Not only did he subtract from it, he ripped out a big chunk of its heart in the form of a fan favorite and talented two-way star. He was the most nationally recognizable player on the team, and he provided a level of star status that is unusual for Oakland players. Other broadcasters knew who he was, even if they didn't know how to pronounce his name. As baseballgirl suggested in her wonderful tribute to La Potencia, losing Cespedes was akin to seeing Jose Canseco traded in 1992. The big-time star, sent packing in the middle of a pennant race. The A's lost their only playoff series that year.
You know what else this reminds me of, though? The Red Sox dumping Nomar Garciaparra for more necessary parts in 2004, en route to a World Series victory. And here's the thing about Cespedes: as much as we love him, as awesome and talented and fun to watch as he is, he wasn't the best player on the team. He was just the most famous. Josh Donaldson is a better hitter and a far better defender, Brandon Moss is a better hitter, and Fangraphs rates Cespedes as only the fourth-most valuable player on the team behind those two and part-time catcher Derek Norris, with John Jaso right on his heels. He's only the sixth-best hitter by OPS+, behind all four of those guys as well as Coco.
Cespedes is good, but he was only one part of the puzzle here and an overrated one at that, at least in pure baseball terms. The biggest thing the team loses with him is power, and that's the main thing that Gomes will bring as his replacement. Cespedes is also considered a big-game performer, the kind of guy who gets better as the stakes get higher, and his career .920 OPS in the postseason lends credence to that perception. But Gomes did hit a crucial home run in the World Series last year, so maybe that's not something to worry about either. And let's not forget that Yo has a .303 OBP this year, which is only a slight uptick from last year's .294 mark. He has flaws, between that low OBP, his poor base running skills, and his propensity for lackadaisical defensive errors.
I am devastated to lose Yoenis. His arrival in 2012 coincided with the team's ascension to greatness, and I don't think that's a coincidence. He's a terrifying opponent, and when he comes to the plate, even in a meaningless situation, you stop whatever you're doing to watch him because he is that exciting. I wanted to see him representing the green and gold in October, and I wanted to see him waving from a float during the victory parade. But the A's, with a stacked lineup and the most runs scored in all of baseball, can win without him.
If there was ever a way to take some of the sting out of losing Cespedes, acquiring Gomes would be it. The Pride of Petaluma was a massive fan favorite in 2012, when he rose from relative obscurity to help drive the A's offense as part of one of Melvin's now-famous platoons. He was a local boy, he was a team leader, he was intense and fun and clutch and had big tattoos and a bigger beard. In our 2012 year-end awards, he was voted the Team Captain of that magical squad. Here's a recount of my experience at Game 5 of the '12 ALDS, after sitting through a couple hours amid a disappointingly silent crowd as Justin Verlander crushed our dreams:
In the 8th inning, Jonny Gomes came up for a token pinch-hit appearance, and the crowd lost its shit. I once went to a Nationals game at RFK Park in Washington, where Redskins fans claim that the stadium will physically sway and shake when the crowd gets crazy enough. That was the feeling that I got when Gomes came up. 35,000 people chanted "Jonny" over and over at the tops of their lungs, and I swear that I could feel the ground moving beneath me. It was the Goma Prieta Earthquake.
So, we lose a fan favorite, but we gain a different kind of fan favorite. We loved Cespedes because he was so exciting. We love Gomes because he's so lovable, but also because he's a good player.
In Boston, Gomes hasn't replicated the career year he enjoyed in Oakland. However, he still gets on base more than Cespedes does (i.e., makes fewer outs), even despite a lower batting average. And, although few mere mortals have as much power as Yoenis, Gomes does have enough to be an intimidating presence. Besides, we all know that his overall numbers (.683 OPS) belie his true ability; against lefties this season, he's batting .302/.400/.431, and that's who he will generally be facing as an Athletic. There are plenty of other outfielders to play against right-handed pitching, like Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt, and now Fuld.
There's also the matter of clubhouse chemistry. It's one thing to trade a huge star and replace him with a stranger. It's got to be easier for the players to be reunited with an old friend, one who we know can succeed here (a big deal for those feeling burned by Hammel). So, one fan favorite out, another one in. One right-handed slugger out, another one in. On the field, the A's got worse but didn't lose as much as you might think in this particular swap.
Oh man. Well, I may as well start with an acknowledgment. I didn't think there was any way that the A's would get Lester, and I made that known on Wednesday. Even Dan Patrick himself called me out to point out how wrong that prediction was (7-31-14, Hour 2, around five minutes in). Furthermore, I made it clear that I wanted to win with the A's team that I'd been following all year, not a random mercenary serving as a short-term ringer. And I still think that; I'm just sick that I won't get to see Cespedes help lead us to that long-awaited title. But, I also said this:
Of course, if the trade somehow went down, I'm sure you'd see me change my tune and cheer Lester as if he had been born in Alameda County and gone to high school with me before being drafted by and ultimately retiring with the A's.
So, welcome Jon Lester, my old high school buddy and beloved A's star! I may talk big, but at the end of the day I'm always going to root for the laundry. I don't want to win this way, but I'd rather win than lose so this is me grudgingly accepting reality. Consider that I am continuing this season under protest; reserving the right to say "I told you so" if it turns out Beane tried to fix something that wasn't broken, but still continuing to love and support my hometown team to my dying breath.
Of course, grudgingly accepting reality is a lot easier when the reality is that your team just got substantially better. If you figure that Gomes is replacing at least some of Cespedes' production, then Lester will serve as a massive upgrade over either Hammel or Chavez. A brief description of Lester, from the same article from Wednesday:
The 30-year-old's career stats are good-but-not-great, but you have to look a bit deeper to see why everyone is so crazy about him. He put up three monster seasons from 2008-2010, ran hot and cold for a few years, and is now in the middle of by far his career year -- 2.52 ERA (next-best was 3.21 in '08), 155 ERA+ (next-best was 144, in '08), more than a strikeout per inning, and a 4.66 strikeout-to-walk ratio (next-best was 3.52 in '09). He is currently second in MLB in fWAR among all pitchers, behind only Felix Hernandez. He also owns two World Series rings, from '07 and '13, and in three career World Series starts he is 3-0 with an 0.43 ERA (one run in 21 innings). Put another way, he's made three WS starts and in two of them he didn't allow a run.
He immediately becomes Oakland's best pitcher, and it's not even close. He's not only a guy who will help every five days down the stretch, he's also a guy who can win Game 1 (and Game 5) of a playoff series against any other pitcher in baseball. Last year, he beat Adam Wainwright twice in one series. When the A's got Samardzija, they were looking for a stud to pitch Game 1. Now, they have one. All last winter, this was what I wanted for the team, that true ace whom no one wanted to face twice in a short series. Now, we have one. The importance of that cannot be understated. The A's were already favorites, but there was room for disappointment. There was room to be Verlander'd, again. Now that loose end is tied up, and there is no one who can stop this team except itself. Billy usually learns from his past mistakes, and he finally corrected the big one from the last two years.
What's that? The Tigers just acquired David Price? Aw, hamburgers.
It's no secret that Milone was a huge favorite of both mine and Nico's. We both believed in his results more than his lack of velocity, and saw him as a solid back-end starting option with the ever-present upside for more if something clicked just right. But the reality is he was no longer a factor on this 2014 team except to serve as depth, and once Lester was on board Tommy's role was even further mitigated. The current rotation, plus depth options:
That's arguably the best starting five in the Majors, plus two excellent replacement options (assuming Hammel isn't really as broken as he looks). There's no room for Milone, even if you never can have too much starting pitching. And even though Lester will certainly be gone next year, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin could be candidates for midseason returns and there will be some extra money lying around with Cespedes' $10.5 million salary (not to mention Jim Johnson's $10 million) off the books. Toss in another $15 million from the expiring contracts of Luke Gregerson, Jed Lowrie, and Alberto Callaspo, and there's quite a bit of money to work with next winter if Beane wants to pursue free agents, even after accounting for Samardzija's added salary and arbitration raises for several players.
And of course, there is the fact that Milone requested a trade after his demotion to Sacramento. Either he, his agent, or both were unhappy that he was cast aside for a newer, shinier toy in Hammel, and he/they shocked the community with their request. We mostly wrote it off as agent posturing, but now you have to wonder if Beane took it more seriously than we did. Either way, Milone got his request, and now he gets to live in Minnesota and play for a last-place team. (Actually, for the Triple-A club of a last place team, for now). I'll miss Milone, and I'll miss his four more years of team control, but the fact is that I wasn't seeing a lot of him anyway and the A's needed help elsewhere.
Actually, the A's needed help in two places. They've needed a new second baseman since Opening Day, but they also needed a new center fielder to fill in for Coco and Gentry. I just didn't think the price to acquire the latter would be so high, or that Beane would spend such a valuable trade chip on anything but the former.
Like Gomes, we are familiar with Fuld. He made Oakland's Opening Day roster, and although he only played in seven games for the team he made the same fantastic impression on the fans that he has in every stop of his baseball-playing life. Here are a couple of rough analogies that you could use to describe him:
- Nick Punto, but in the outfield
- A poor man's Craig Gentry
- Billy Burns with less speed but more power
- Eric Byrnes without the bat
You get the idea. He runs fast, he draw walks, he puts the ball in play, and he plays good defense at all outfield positions. And he does all of that in the most exciting, endearing way possible, throwing his body around the field and putting the maximum possible human effort into everything he does. That's who he is, no more, no less.
Except there has been more this year. He's hitting now, to the tune of .274/.370/.354 (104 OPS+) in 195 plate appearances for the Twins. That's probably a best-case scenario for him, and he might revert back to hitting .200 with the A's, but at least he's at his hottest right now after batting .358 in July. He only needs to be over-his-head good for three more months (or parts thereof), not the rest of his career. And, he's under team control for two more seasons after this, so at least the A's will have something to show for these deadline moves in 2015. Fuld doesn't have a particular platoon split, so he can start against any pitcher when needed, at any outfield position. He can pinch-run, or replace Gomes on defense late in a game. He's the perfect kind of puzzle piece for this roster, just as he was in April when the A's cut him to save room for Daric Barton (oh, I shouldn't have reminded you about that). Try not to think about the fact that we now have Barton instead of Milone, and just assume that Fuld would have eventually been cut for one reason or other no matter what.
This has already been a very emotional day, and it's only lunchtime. Shock. Anger. Excitement. Betrayal. Humility. Nostalgia. Hope. And so many others. For those worried that the A's dealt their most exciting player for a rental, consider that they traded eight months of Cespedes for four combined months of Lester and Gomes and the math doesn't seem quite as bad; include the inevitable 2014 playoffs, and it's nine months of Cespedes for six months of Lester and Gomes. And there was a good chance that Milone wasn't going to play a significant role in this organization in the next couple years, unless things went so wrong that the competitive window vanished anyway. The losses are not as painful as they felt initially, and we all understand that if you want to acquire serious upgrades then the package you send has to hurt to lose.
The important thing is this: the 2014 A's got better on Thursday. They got way better. I don't think I even fully appreciate how much better they got just yet. All I care about is winning the 2014 World Series, and I would give up the draft rights to a future child of mine to be born later in order to get it (sorry, theoretical Coco Hall). These deals got me closer to that dream. And as much as I want to think of them as anti-Beane moves, paying the premium price (and possibly overpaying) for an established star rather than making do with sticks and glue, therein lies the beauty of it all. There is no such thing as a "Beane move." Once you think you have him figured out, he re-invents his strategy and does something new. When you think he's gonna zig, he zags instead.
There is only one Billy Beane strategy, and that is to do whatever you have to in order to win. In some years, that means digging for bargains and finding new ways of valuing players due to a tight budget. In other years, that means dealing veterans for prospects in order to collect young, cost-controlled rookies. In 2014, it means trading whatever isn't bolted down for the top talent available to shore up any possible weakness between here and the 11th win of the postseason.
Billy was already all-in after the Samardzija trade. Now he's tossed his car keys and the deed to his house into the pot to raise the stakes even further, hoping to bully some other teams out along the way to the final reveal. Let's hope his hand is as good as he thinks it is.