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Trading Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester has saved the Athletics' season

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Don't think of it as trading Cespedes. Think of it as acquiring Lester.

The trade worked exactly like it was supposed to. It's just that the rest of the team didn't follow suit.
The trade worked exactly like it was supposed to. It's just that the rest of the team didn't follow suit.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

It's been awfully quiet around Athletics Nation lately. The A's are limping toward the finish line like an elephant with three broken legs, and it's one of the most difficult things I've ever had to watch in sports. To go from the high of being the best team in baseball for four months to the low of getting swept by literally the worst team in MLB and wondering if you'll even make the playoffs at all might be the biggest collapse in Bay Area pro sports in my lifetime. Add insult to injury by having our beloved Triple-A club jump ship to team up with our hated geographic rival, and you have the makings of a real bummer of a second half.

The worst part about all of this, though, might be hearing the rest of the world blame it all on one single trade made by Billy Beane. If you read this site regularly, there is a good chance that you have an appreciation for the nuances that affect a team's fortunes over a long season. You know about the injuries, about the Angels' hot streak, about the blown saves, all of it. But if you tune into a national broadcast or a mainstream website or just the Facebook comments of any A's site, you'll see that most of the world still places the Cespedes trade as either the primary or the sole cause of this collapse. And that just kills me.

It's no secret that Oakland's biggest problem has been offense. On Aug. 1, the A's led all of baseball in scoring, a full dozen runs above the runner-up Angels. In August, they ranked 22nd out of 30 teams. In September, they currently rank 24th. The runs have stopped. Here is what Yoenis Cespedes has done in Boston since the trade, in a hitter's park in Fenway:

Cespedes, Boston, 2014: 44 games, .257/.290/.433, 5 homers, 29 RBI

That's not really a slump for Cespedes. That's the hitter he is, maybe a tiny notch down from his normal production. I don't understand why anyone thinks that inserting that player into the lineup would have single-handedly saved the offense from falling from the top of the world to the bottom-third. Heck, the A's did essentially replace him in September. The 34-year-old Adam Dunn, an actual top-notch slugger who has 462 career homers, is worth about the same at the plate in his advanced age as Cespedes in his prime -- both have 22 homers this year (Cespedes needed 130 extra plate appearances to get there), and Dunn leads in OPS by 13 points, albeit Cespedes is a bit better at making the necessary contact to drive in runners on non-homers. And Dunn's addition for all of September hasn't made much of a difference.

Even if you add all 29 of Cespedes' Boston RBI onto Oakland's August total, they still only move up to sixth in scoring. Add them all to September and they're tied for fifth, and both of those scenarios unrealistically condense two months of production into one month of games (and ignore the opportunity cost of whatever player would have been on the bench while Yoenis played). So he could have made a difference of a game or two, absolutely, because he's a good hitter. But consider this: Brandon Moss turned into a pumpkin and didn't hit a home run for seven weeks and he still has more dingers than Cespedes does this year, by a comfortable margin. Face it -- we all love Cespedes, but his bark is simply worse than his bite when it comes to actually hitting in real games. He has now played three full season in MLB and is yet to exceed 26 home runs in a campaign, and two of his three seasons include sub-.300 OBPs.

As for clubhouse chemistry, just stop it. This summer I met Coco Crisp at a bar in Walnut Creek and talked to him for 30 seconds. That is the extent of my inside knowledge of the A's clubhouse, and it's probably more than you have. Speculating on the psychological impact of a trade is just a waste of everybody's time, because by definition you are making it all up because you've never met or talked to these guys and you don't know what they're thinking or feeling or what it's like to play in the Majors. We never heard of Cespedes as a clubhouse leader before the deal, and the 2004 Red Sox did just fine after dealing an actual superstar and leader in Nomar Garciaparra at the deadline. The A's replaced Yo with two guys who have brand-new World Series rings, one of whom (Jonny Gomes) is perptually cited as a leader and was already familiar to most of the guys on the team. Let's call that a wash.

Of course, there is more to a baseball team than the hitting. How have the other areas of the team contributed since the trade? Let's start with the defense. Fangraphs has all of the stats I would want to use for such a measure, but they don't offer partial-season splits of those defensive metrics. All we can know is that the A's still rank eighth in MLB in both Defensive Runs Saved and overall defensive value for the entire season, so they can't have fallen far. Sam Fuld replaced Cespedes in the outfield, for the most part, and has been a statistical wash (Cespedes has rated reeeeally well with the glove this year, but so has Fuld). We know that some key errors have led to heartbreakers, and that Eric Sogard struggled at shortstop, but overall the leatherwork has been adequate or better.

What about the bullpen? It's neat that they have the fourth-best ERA in baseball in the second half (2.70), but they haven't gotten the job done when it's counted most -- they've only converted nine of 17 save opportunities, and that 53 percent success rate is fourth-worst in MLB since the break. Stretch that out to the full season and the A's have the third-best reliever ERA but the sixth-most blown saves (21 total). I don't even know how to comprehend those numbers, but they tell me that the pen has secretly and consistently been the weakest link on the team all year. And it hasn't all been Jim Johnson, who shockingly accounted for exactly one of those 21 failures (reliever stats are weird, man). No, this has been a full team effort; heck, four different guys (Abad, Gregerson, O'Flaherty, Doolittle) have blown saves just in the last couple weeks.

That leaves the starting rotation. The overall numbers aren't good -- 3.90 ERA in a pitcher's park, 20th in MLB. What about the individual performers, starting Aug. 1?

Jon Lester: 10 starts, 69⅔ innings, 2.20 ERA, 4.0 K-per-BB
Jeff Samardzija: 9 starts, 61 innings, 3.10 ERA, 7.5 K-per-BB
Jason Hammel: 7 starts*, 41⅔ innings, 2.81 ERA, 3.0 K-per-BB
Sonny Gray: 10 starts, 64 innings, 4.64 ERA, 2.0 K-per-BB
Scott Kazmir: 9 starts, 48⅔ innings, 6.29 ERA, 1.8 K-per-BB

* not counting Hammel's mop-up relief outing against Texas on Thursday, in which he threw three scoreless innings.

Man, good thing Billy made those trades or else the rotation would really suck. It's almost like he saw this coming and planned ahead to shore up the staff, because the three guys he acquired have been single-handedly keeping the team afloat. Can you imagine if Sonny and Kazmir were the top two starters on the club? Those two have combined for 10 quality starts since the deal; Lester has 10 on his own. He and Samardzija are averaging around seven innings per start; Gray is closer to six and Kazmir five, meaning that the bullpen (remember, that's the weakest link on the team) has to play more when those two guys take the mound. The A's are already struggling, and replacing Lester with, say, Drew Pomeranz would have made things even worse -- and I don't mean that as a knock on Pomeranz, who tends to be reliable for five solid innings at a time. Jesse Chavez probably wouldn't have been any better than Pomeranz, considering how gassed he looked when he moved to the pen and how unspectacular he's been in relief outings in which he hasn't had to pace himself for five or seven frames at a time. It's not a stretch to assume that the A's would have lost at least an extra game or two with that downgrade in the rotation, and two extra losses would put the A's out of the playoff picture at this moment.

Here's another way to look at it. What do you think would have helped the slumping A's more since Aug. 1: five homers from Cespedes, or 10 starts from Lester averaging seven innings and two runs each? I don't know about you, but if I'm trying to win games with a bottom-third offense then I'd probably want the 10 contests in which all I have to do is score two or three runs to be in a position to win. The team is 7-3 when Lester starts, and the losses include one game against Felix (Lester went eight and allowed only two runs) and another in which the A's got shut out. Sure was nice to have him step in on Friday and serve as the stopper against the Phillies, halting the losing streak that resulted from both Gray and Kaz getting lit up by the Rangers. Did anyone watch last night and not think to themselves, "Wow, I'm sure glad we have Lester"? The offense was going to suck either way once half the lineup got hurt and the other half stopped producing. Because Beane got Lester, the rotation didn't follow suit.

Then, of course, there's that other part of the equation. The Angels are 31-16 since Aug. 1, and during one stretch they went 25-6. Let's be honest with ourselves. It didn't matter what the A's did, they were not going to win the AL West this year. The Angels won it all on their own. Even if you take Oakland's 18-28 record since Aug. 1 and give Cespedes credit for a five-game swing to improve it to .500, the Angels are still ahead by a half dozen in the division, and that's an enormously generous estimate of any one player's value (and it would probably have to be more to make that hypothetical work, since Lester won seven of those 18 games and his theoretical replacement would have almost certainly been worse). The A's were going to be fighting for the Wild Card this year and that's just the way it is.

Where does this leave us? Well, it's simple, and it's nothing you don't already know. Oakland enters Saturday a half-game up in the Wild Card race, which means there is and has been absolutely no margin for error. If the A's miss the playoffs, this whole thing will be a big letdown and it'll be one of the longest winters of our lives as A's fans. If the A's hold serve and then win the Wild Card play-in, then they're in the tournament and anything can happen -- remember, even the 2010 Giants can win it all and even the 2007 Rockies can at least reach the World Series. It'll just be a matter of doubling down on our fAith and waving those rally towels a bit harder as we scream at the TV. But if Oakland does miss the postseason, then please don't blame Billy Beane and his all-in, win-now deal. Trading Yoenis Cespedes did not ruin Oakland's season. In fact, acquiring Jon Lester may just have been the thing that saved it. And if the A's do make it to October and make a deep run, you better believe that Lester will be one of the leading reasons why.