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Athletics 2014 season review: Jeff Samardzija and the trade that had to be made

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Billy Beane smelled blood in July, so he brought in a Shark.
Billy Beane smelled blood in July, so he brought in a Shark.
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Three players wore No. 29 for the Oakland Athletics in 2014, and we already covered two of them. Next up is Jeff Samardzija, whose time in Oakland was brief but whose impact could be felt for many years.

Player profile

Name: Jeff Samardzija, aka Shark
Position: RHP, starting
Stats: 16 starts, 3.14 ERA (118 ERA+), 111⅔ innings, 99 Ks, 12 BB*, 2 CG
WAR: 1.7 bWAR, 2.1 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Chicago Cubs on July 5
2014 Salary: $5.345 million (full season)
2015 Status: Traded to Chicago White Sox on Dec. 9
2015 Salary: $9.8 million

* 8.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio

Season summary

On July 1, the A's had the best record in baseball and led in run differential by more than 60 over the next-best team. The offense was scoring the most runs in the Majors, and the rotation had somehow thrived despite the fact that Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin never threw a single pitch. It appeared the club was rolling, firing on all cylinders and setting its sights on October. But Billy Beane saw an underlying flaw, and he didn't wait around to let it sink the best chance he'd had at a ring in years.

You see, on July 1, Brad Mills started for the A's. He started because Dan Straily had pitched his way back to Triple-A, because up-and-comer Drew Pomeranz had broken his hand punching a chair after a bad game, and because there was simply no one left to turn to after the last-minute losses of Parker and Griffin taxed the organization of all remaining depth. In fact, it was Mills' third start for the team already, and although the A's had won the first two of those contests, he was clearly not a good bet long-term. Mills was a band-aid until a better plan could be formed, and it was found money that the A's were able to snatch a couple victories with him on the mound.

Mills lost that July 1 game to the Detroit Tigers. The next day, Jesse Chavez got beaten up for the second start in a row. Two days later, Tommy Milone was scheduled to start, and even though he was on a hot streak it was optimistic to assume that would continue unabated. Scott Kazmir, one of the stars of the group, hadn't exceeded 160 innings since 2007 and carried substantial injury risk. Sonny Gray, the other star, was in his first full MLB season. After those five, the only options with MLB experience were Straily and Josh Lindblom, but Lindblom had tanked in Triple-A. Furthermore, after Lindblom pitched for Sacramento on July 1, he was shelved for two months with an injury and only threw one more inning all season.

Billy Beane looked at that rotation and knew that it would not get him to the World Series. There wasn't enough talent in the group, and there was absolutely no backup plan in case someone got hurt. A move had to be made, and it had to be something substantial. Beane had a great team right now and years of October near-misses haunting him. This wasn't the time to stand pat and use optimism as a strategy, nor to try to get by with a low-level bargain pickup. This was the time to push the chips into the middle and make the strongest run he could. It was time for Billy to make his own luck, as bad luck potentially lurked around every corner.

He tried to wrest David Price from the Rays, but they wouldn't bite. Needing a top-of-the-rotation starter, he turned to the Chicago Cubs and Jeff Samardzija. When the price for Samardzija got too high, Jason Hammel was added to the deal to balance things out; after all, depth was necessary alongside top-level talent, so getting a second starter helped that much more. The cost was huge -- uber-prospect Addison Russell, a shortstop with the chance to be a superstar; Billy McKinney, a recent first-round pick who had hit well in his brief pro tenure; and Straily, the young pitcher who had nothing to offer in 2014 but still had the chance to pan out in future years. Russell and McKinney were valuable prospect stock, but they were both in the low minors and had no chance at making it up in time to help Beane win the ring that he had his sights set on. And as with all prospects, there's no guarantee that they'll ever make it at all.

Never before had Beane traded future for present to such an extent. Without losing anyone from his MLB roster, he'd replaced Milone and Mills with Samardzija (2.83 ERA, 3.32 K/BB with Cubs) and Hammel (2.98 ERA, 4.52 K/BB). The rotation had gone from stable-but-precarious to legitimately strong. Hammel was horrible in his first four starts for Oakland, but he sharpened up down the stretch and ended up grading out as a solid No. 4/5 starter overall, meaning he didn't push the scales much in either direction.

Meanwhile, Samardzija was excellent. He went at least seven innings in 12 of his 16 starts, he struck out over eight batters per walk, and in his final seven outings he had a 2.08 ERA in 52 innings with 56 strikeouts and only three walks. That the A's won only eight of the 16 games he started, and two of those final seven, speaks to how thoroughly the rest of the team fell apart.

It's a good thing that Beane preemptively shored up his rotation, too. Sonny and Kazmir each struggled with inconsistency in the final two months of the season, and the A's went 8-15 in their starts in that span -- Kazmir's ERA was 6.05 in his last 11 outings. Chavez, who was already beginning to show signs of coming back to Earth when the trade was made, endured a string of six starts from late June through July in which he posted a 5.51 ERA and completed six innings only once. He was eventually replaced by Jon Lester, who did pitch well but at the cost of Yoenis Cespedes. Meanwhile, Straily continued to underwhelm in Triple-A for the Cubs, Milone fell apart in Triple-A after his demotion and then put up a 7.06 ERA for the Twins after being traded, and Mills washed up with the Blue Jays but didn't make another MLB start.

Perhaps things would have gone differently for those other guys had Beane not shaken up the rotation. Maybe Milone's confidence really was shattered by being demoted just as he was performing at his best, but more likely his success was unsustainable and was destined to erode back toward league-average. There's a chance that Chavez could have emerged from his slump and found a second wind in the second half, but betting on an untested journeyman to stay strong and perform feats he's never performed while blowing away his career-high in innings would have been a poor gamble for a team trying to capitalize on a win-now season.

When all was said and done, the A's went 8-8 in Shark's 16 starts. However, given that they went 34-41 overall starting on the day of his first appearance, he still out-performed the average; the lineup scored two or fewer runs in four of the eight losses, he had two scoreless gems wasted by bullpen meltdowns in September, and the A's went 7-2 when they gave him at least four runs of support. They didn't always win when he took the mound, but he almost always put them in a position to do so. It's not really a stretch to estimate that Mills or Milone or Chavez would only have gone 6-10, or worse, if given the chance to stick around for the rest of the year. Given that the A's made the playoffs by one game, a two-win swing would have left them on the outside looking in.

It would have been an absolute blast to watch a playoff rotation of Lester-Sonny-Kazmir-Shark, but alas, it was not meant to be. The A's fell in the Game That Shall Not Be Named, and Shark never got a chance to pitch in the postseason a few months after being forced to sit out his first All-Star game due to his midseason change in leagues. When Beane saw the disappointing climax of his contending core -- 88 wins and another first-round playoff exit -- he decided to tear down the foundation and reset with a younger group and more depth. Samardzija, entering his final year before free agency, was one of four All-Stars to be shipped out of town, and in return for him the A's got four players with six years each of team control: Marcus Semien, an East Bay native who they hope will be their starting shortstop in 2015; Chris Bassitt, an MLB-ready pitcher who might be a back-end starter or a powerful reliever; Josh Phegley, a backup catcher with legit power; and Rangel Ravelo, a high-minors lottery ticket with an intriguing bat.

Samardzija Jaws

Samardzija was a member of the Oakland Athletics for only five months, and he played in only 16 games for them. However, his impact was far-reaching. He's the reason Addison Russell is gone, and if Russell pans out into a star then Shark's name will always carry a bit of extra bite in the ears of A's fans. On the flipside, if any of the four players Oakland got from the White Sox develop into long-term contributors, then fans will revel at how the player(s) was stolen in return for an imminently expiring asset. But the biggest impact that he had was his leading role in helping Oakland earn a playoff berth.

The value of that playoff berth is easy to underrate, but only because we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. We know now that the A's lost an insane Wild Card game, so it's easy to write off the postseason invite. What if they'd gone on their own Giants-esque run with their stacked rotation and won it all? Or at least won the AL pennant? Wouldn't we all be praising Beane's bold moves and letting him at least partially off the hook for the future (now present) consequences? And all because, what, Jonny Gomes entered as an injury replacement and botched a play in left? Or Christian Colon hit a 50-foot single to tie the game? Or Geo Soto hurt his thumb in the first inning? We can't accurately judge the value of that playoff berth because it turned out so heartbreakingly poorly. But hey, the second Wild Card team in the other league took home the championship, so I'll bet they're happy they traded prospects for pitching at the deadline.

The Shark trade had its critics at the time, and it still does today. It hurts to see Russell in another system while all we have to show for it is another "Best Postseason Spirit" award on our mantle. One can create a strong argument that the playoffs were attainable with a lesser move that didn't involve Russell, especially by forming it around the then-available Brandon McCarthy and his improbable second-half resurgence -- his improved pitching was fairly predictable, but his spotless health was not. However, I've heard them all and I'm convinced that anything less than all of the additions Beane made would have resulted in, at best, a Game 163 tiebreaker against the Mariners in Safeco Park. The only move that I think Beane can be rightly criticized for is the one he didn't make to acquire a second baseman, and the only realistically available one that he missed on was Martin Prado; even then, Eric Sogard's improved play after the All-Star break meant that the keystone was not a major factor in the team's collapse.

A trade had to be made to improve the rotation, and it couldn't wait for the market to develop at the end of July. It had to be for an established top arm, not a diamond-in-the-rough. Beane paid a premium, but he picked the right guy and he was rewarded when that guy fulfilled every expectation on the field. It still wasn't enough in the end, with all of the other areas of the roster that unexpectedly went wrong. But I will always remember Shark as a fantastic pitcher who had a great stint in Oakland and just seemed like a generally good guy who was a blast to watch and write about. Most of all, I'll remember him as one of the quartet (along with Lester, Donaldson and Reddick) who dragged the 2014 A's kicking and screaming into the postseason, if only for one day.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B+ ... The A's needed a top starter, and that's what they paid for, so that's what I expected. They got a 118 ERA+, seven innings per start, and elite peripheral stats. Sounds like a top starter to me. He could have earned an A by doing his best impression of 1998 Randy Johnson and pitching so well that he earned some AL Cy Young votes for his half-season -- that's an absurdly high standard, but hey, the bar of expectation was set pretty high. He got the plus on his B precisely because he did enjoy that type of insane run over his final seven games.

2014 season grade, overall: A- ... Whether you look at his strong stint with the A's, or his overall season (2.99 ERA, 126 ERA+, 202 Ks, nearly 220 innings), Shark was a borderline ace in 2014. If he'd spent all year in one league, he would have gotten Cy votes without question.

Video highlights

Shark won his debut start in Oakland, with seven innings of one-run ball against the Blue Jays. Here he is striking out the side in the seventh before leaving to a big ovation.

The A's went on to win six of Shark's first seven starts, in which he posted a 3.08 ERA. They only won two of his final seven, in which he posted a 2.08 ERA, exactly a run lower. If you're looking for yet one more way to illustrate the late-season collapse, there you go. This was one of the two late-season wins, and to earn it he had to go eight innings and strike out 10 batters in order to involve the bullpen and defense as little as possible. He left with a 3-2 lead entering the ninth, and although the offense finally scored five in the final frame to run away with it, there's a good chance that without Shark's dominant performance (and, say, Milone instead) they would have been playing catch-up by then and this one could have gone either way.

This was not his other late-season win, but it should have been one. He went eight and fanned 10 again, and this time he left with a 1-0 lead. Unfortunately, the A's were on the wrong side of the ninth-inning rally this time, as Sean Doolittle and the bullpen coughed up six runs to take the loss.

Finally, here he is shutting down his new team for seven scoreless innings. The bullpen blew this one too.

***

I'm a big believer in Jeff Samardzija after last year. I think his strong campaign was 100% for real, and I actually think he's poised to take it up another small notch in 2015 and have his career year for the White Sox. I'm glad we got the chance to watch him in Oakland, however briefly.