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Pirates vs. Cubs Wild Card Game: Joe Blanton, Addison Russell lead list of former Oakland A's

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Turns out that has-been starters can still make great relievers.
Turns out that has-been starters can still make great relievers.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game, with the help of former Oakland A's including closer Luke Gregerson and slugger Chris Carter. On Wednesday, the NL edition will take place as the Pittsburgh PIrates host the Chicago Cubs.

It's tough to figure out the emotional underdog in this one. The Astros/Yankees game was something of a David vs. Goliath matchup, at least in terms of franchise histories -- we all still remember the Yankees' recent run of greatness, whereas the Astros are a recent-punchline-turned-upstart. However, the NL game isn't as clear. The Cubs seem like the obvious choice, since they haven't won a title since 1908, but the Pirates recently set a North American professional sports record with 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012 and now find themselves in their third straight Wild Card Game after losing to the Giants Madison Bumgarner in last year's matchup. Their reward for their long wait through the dark times has been swift playoff elimination in two straight years, and if anyone can appreciate that it's A's fans.

Only a monster would have rooted for the Yankees over the Astros. But tonight, you can't go wrong either way. Personally, I'm rooting for the Pirates. I want both of these teams to win, but the Cubs seem better poised to get their time in the spotlight down the road whereas the Pirates' window might be a bit narrower. Whoever wins this game, though, I hope that team beats the Cardinals in the NLDS.

To make things even more interesting, there are a few former Athletics in this game -- one in a starting lineup, and five overall. Here's a quick word on each:

Addison Russell, SS: Welp. This is always a possibility when you deal a top prospect. At age 21, Russell turned in 3.4 bWAR in his rookie season, though it was mostly for defense at second base (Semien was worth 2.7 bWAR, by the way). His hitting wasn't actually that great -- .242/.307/.389, for a 90 OPS+, 13 homers, and a lot of strikeouts. But it was good enough to be an MLB-caliber player, and he's still got the tools to be a superstar. He also supplanted Starlin Castro at shortstop toward the end of the season, with Starlin moving to second base.

I still wonder if the Cubs jumped the gun on promoting Russell, since they essentially traded away the Barry Larkin upside of his age-27 season to have him play 2B (as opposed to SS) this year. They won the second wild card by 13 games, so they didn't necessarily need him in order to earn this playoff spot. But of course, they didn't know that would be the case at the beginning of the season, and who knows how things could have differently with a different player at the keystone. And if Russell has a couple of big moments this month en route to a ring, then oh man, the hot takes in Bay Area sports media are going to be infernos.

Trevor Cahill, RP: He actually started the year on the Braves, but that didn't go well -- in 15 games, he posted a 7.52 ERA and rates of around 5 Ks and 4 BB per 9 innings. Two months after his release from Atlanta, and after a brief tryout in the Dodgers system, he caught on with the Cubs in mid-August. In 11 games, he's got a 2.12 ERA, with 22 Ks and 5 BB in 17 innings. There are still some others above him on the depth chart, but if the Cubs are calling on their pen by the 6th or 7th then there's a good chance we could see Cahill pitch.

Chris Denorfia, OF: He didn't have much of an A's career, really, playing only 33 games over two seasons in 2008-09. But then he carved out a solid 5-year, 10-bWAR career with the Padres, and now the 35-year-old is a bench piece for the Cubs. His plus defense in the corners is more like a neutral now, and his OPS+ has fallen down from the 108 he enjoyed in his San Diego days to a mere 90, leaving him with a negative bWAR each of the last two years. But worse players have emerged as playoff heroes, so you never know if he'll be the guy who comes through in some big way. If he does play, I imagine it will be as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher's spot or as a defensive replacement it/when Kris Bryant moves from LF back to his normal 3B.

Jon Lester, SP: He's the biggest name among the former A's, but he's the least relevant because he won't actually be playing in this game. Jake Arrieta is starting, so Lester is just there as insurance in case something unexpectedly goes wrong with Arrieta. Lester had another fantastic season, breaking both 200 innings and 200 strikeouts for the second straight year (and fourth time in the last seven years) to go with an ERA+ of 116.

Joe Blanton, RP: He retired from baseball in 2014, and then he unretired in 2015 and began the year with the Royals. He did pretty well for them in 15 games, but, as you may have heard, relief pitching is kind of their thing and I guess they just didn't have room for him with all of the other insane talent in their bullpen. They sent him to the Pirates, and in 21 games he has a 1.57 ERA, 10 Ks per 9 innings, and more than 4 Ks per walk. (Try not to remember that he was in the A's organization when he retired last year; his resurgence came one year too late for us.) Like with Cahill, there are a few guys ahead of Blanton on the Pirates' depth chart, but if they need more than two innings of relief than he could be in the mix. It is entirely possible that we could see a 6th or 7th inning in which Blanton pitches the top and Cahill pitches the bottom.

Also, the Pirates have a pitcher named Arquimedes, another named Bastardo, and another named LaFromboise*. C'mon, root for the Pirates with me. I know BillyFrijoles is on board the ship.

* Note: He is not actually from Boise, and is also not on the Wild Card Game roster.

(Also: Starting pitcher Jason Hammel is back on the Cubs, but he isn't necessary for this game and thus isn't on the roster; I imagine we'll see him if Chicago makes it to the NLDS.)

Today's Lineups

CHICAGO CUBS PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Dexter Fowler - CF Gregory Polanco - RF
Kyle Schwarber - RF Josh Harrison - 3B
Kris Bryant - LF Andrew McCutchen - CF
Anthony Rizzo - 1B Starling Marte - LF
Tommy La Stella - 3B Francisco Cervelli - C
Starlin Castro - 2B Neil Walker - 2B
Miguel Montero - C Jordy Mercer - SS
Addison Russell - SS Sean Rodriguez - 1B
Jake Arrieta - RHP Gerrit Cole - RHP