As an A’s fan watching the 2016 postseason, it was impossible not to think about Addison Russell. In an organization not known for drafting and developing great position players, he was the one who got away. And while it’s easy to laugh at the A’s now for adding one more star to the ranks of today’s contending teams, I find that to be a ridiculous exercise in smug hindsight. I’m here to point out the double standard.
Russell was tabbed as the next big thing for Oakland, a 1st-round pick who looked like the real deal from day one. Instead of waiting for him, though, the A’s saw an opportunity for a ring and dealt him in an enormously risky but strategically justifiable midseason trade for an in-demand All-Star starter. (The trade included other players, but Russell-for-Samardzija was the most relevant part).
I’ve said my piece on that trade already: in a season that saw them win the final Wild Card by just one game, this acquisition is what put them over the top. Without that trade, we’d be sitting here lamenting how Billy Beane’s front office is too passive to take the bold steps necessary to even reach October (much less win a title) after watching his 2014 juggernaut finish in third place behind the Wild Card Mariners. Instead, he went big to add a star, and he picked the right guy because Shark was great in Oakland. I can’t in good faith criticize Beane for that move, especially since he at least ended up salvaging a 3-WAR consolation prize replacement in Marcus Semien as a direct result.
The A’s made an all-in move, and even though it worked it didn’t win them a ring. The top prospect they sent away immediately panned out, and two years later he’s an All-Star and world champion with a grand slam and 9 RBI on his World Series resume. That is just about a worst-case scenario no matter how you slice it, and taking cheap shots at such an unfortunate outcome is a really weak thing to do.
It’s not just weak, though. It’s also downright foolish. Why? Because the Cubs themselves made almost the same trade this very summer to win their ring. Let’s compare:
- The A’s sent a package based around a 20-year-old SS prospect, ranked between No. 7 and No. 14 overall on preseason lists. The star they got back was a great starter for three months (111⅔ ip), and had one more year of team control (which the A’s were able to cash in on to replace the SS they’d lost).
- The Cubs sent a package based around a 19-year-old SS prospect (Gleyber Torres), ranked between No. 28 and No. 41 overall on preseason lists. The star they got back was a great reliever for two months (26⅔ ip), but is now a free agent and can’t get a qualifying offer.
- The secondary prospect in both deals was literally the same guy: Billy McKinney, who for what it’s worth is a slightly bigger prospect now than he was when the A’s traded him. Dan Straily and Adam Warren cancel each other out conceptually, in terms of trade value at the times of their inclusion. And the Cubs had to add in one extra prospect to make their deal, while the A’s actually received an extra MLB starter in theirs (three months of Jason Hammel).
The 2014 A’s and the 2016 Cubs both made massive win-now trades for veteran pitchers to help them win a ring. The A’s deal was almost undeniably better. But it’s the Cubs who have a ring to show for theirs, because baseball isn’t a one-man sport — for example, most of their lineup didn’t go down with injuries in the final months like Oakland’s did that fateful year.
And remember, it’s not like Chapman was the star of October. His addition certainly didn’t make any difference in winning the division, which they did by 17½ games — they were going to the playoffs with or without Chapman. And once there, the lefty was downright bad. His 3.45 ERA is pedestrian enough without considering that he also allowed 5-of-11 inherited runners to score. Even worse, he blew three saves in seven chances, including Game 7 of the World Series on the road.
The only reason Chapman isn’t currently the face of the rejuvenated Billy Goat Curse is because Ben Zobrist and the lineup offered him one of the biggest bailouts in MLB history. Can you imagine being the mercenary acquisition who blew Game 7 for the Cubs in 2016? And then can you imagine remembering that Chicago gave up something resembling Addison Russell just to acquire him, and how much worse it would look if Gleyber Torres becomes an All-Star by 2018? Not gonna lie: The Chapman trade kind of didn’t work, but his team won anyway and they will be hailed hereafter for their bold move. Oakland’s Shark trade did work, but that team lost anyway and it goes down as an all-time gaffe. Welcome to sports.
And it’s not like the Chapman deal was unique this year. Chicago’s opponent, the Cleveland Indians, made a similar one for Andrew Miller. They gave up outfield prospect Clint Frazier (ranked as high as No. 27 in the preseason) and pitcher Justus Sheffield (ranked as high as No. 88). Granted, they still get Miller for two more years, but they arguably gave up more to get him and he didn’t earn them a title.
The Red Sox gave up Anderson Espinoza (as high as No. 19 preseason) for Drew Pomeranz, who didn’t help much at all and has only two more years of control after Boston’s first-round exit. The Rangers gave up three Top 100 guys (Lewis Brinson, Dillon Tate, Luis Ortiz) for Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran, who couldn’t even get them to the ALCS; all they have to show for it now is one more year of Lucroy. The Dodgers spent a couple Top 100 guys on two impending free agents, and lost. And look now: Espinoza, Brinson, Frazier, and Torres currently rank Nos. 13, 14, 15, and 17 on MLB Pipeline’s top prospect list.
Trading impact prospects for stars in July is still a thing, and it still fails most of the time because only one team gets to win the World Series every year. When the prospect also pans out into an All-Star, it just adds another layer of despair. I guess you can laugh and call them stupid after the fact if that makes you happy, but I think you’d be missing the point. If you want to root for a team that refuses to go for the gold at crucial moments, then perhaps the Pirates or the Twins are the team for you.
Yep, those brilliant Cubs. They were so smart to trade a young top-shelf shortstop prospect and Billy McKinney for a win-now veteran pitcher, while simultaneously paying a lavish price to have Jon Lester lead their rotation in front of a dynamic young lineup. It’s those types of savvy moves that really put them over the top. Why can’t the A’s be smart like that?