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Reactions: Trading Luzardo risky, but Marte is an impact gamble

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Go big or go home

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three
Farewell Jesús, we’ll miss you in Oakland!
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Holy crap.

Not to be crude. That’s an actual term in baseball, a “holy crap trade,” a blockbuster that really gets your attention and shows that a team means business. The term is actually “holy shit trade” but I thought I’d tone down the profanity a bit.

Perhaps a true Holy Crap Trade would be even bigger than what we saw between the Oakland A’s and Miami Marlins on Wednesday, with young pitching phenom Jesús Luzardo going east in exchange for a two-month rental of excellent outfielder Starling Marte. But within the small ponds of these two perpetual underdog franchises it qualifies, not only because of the impact it can make but also because of how jarringly unexpected it was.

Consider the risk the A’s just took. Entering 2020, Luzardo was ranked as a national Top Ten prospect in the entire sport. Last summer he posted a solid rookie campaign, and then in the fall he started Game 1 of a postseason series. He has elite velocity, secondaries, and command, all from the left side, and he’s only 23 with five more years of team control.

Last August, before his first MLB start, I described him like this:

“If you’re not already familiar with Luzardo, he’s a 22-year-old left-hander with the chance to be the next ace of Oakland’s rotation ...”

Back then, trading him would have been unthinkable, much less straight-up for a rental. But he struggled this year, then got hurt, then struggled some more, enough that he was no longer part of the team’s immediate 2021 plans. Now they needed a major chip to acquire the new star player they wanted during a playoff push, and you’ve gotta give something to get something.

Regardless of the recent struggles, or the embarrassing video-game injury, or his toiling in Triple-A while being passed on the depth chart by other starters like Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian, the trade was still a shock. Not long ago, A’s fans saw Luzardo as a central piece of the club’s immediate future, and now he’s gone, for a rental.

We knew they’d make moves, like midlevel prospects for reliever Andrew Chafin on Monday, or similarly modest-but-helpful deals from the last few contending summers. But we haven’t seen a whopper like this since 2014, when they sent away another national Top Ten prospect in Addison Russell. And even then they got an extra year of control over the star they acquired for Russell, so they were able to recoup some value the next winter in a follow-up flip-trade.

There’s no such contingency plan this time. There’s just this October with Marte, and then the next half-decade anxiously wondering what Luzardo will become in another uniform.

Of course, things can change quickly in the pitching world. That quote above from my article last August? Here’s the full sentence, which used to make 100% unironic sense less than 12 months ago.

“If you’re not already familiar with Luzardo, he’s a 22-year-old left-hander with the chance to be the next ace of Oakland’s rotation — and that’s saying something on a team that already has Frankie Montas atop its staff.”

Not to knock Montas, who is still contributing, but he’s not the All-Star we hoped he was becoming in 2019. Luzardo has legitimate Cy Young potential, but history is littered with the unfulfilled promise of young pitchers. Trading them is risky, but so is keeping them if they don’t pan out quite like you hoped.

Back in July 2012, there was trade chatter around the A’s and another Marlins star, Hanley Ramirez. He ended up going to the Dodgers, where he hit well the rest of that year and then went supernova in 2013, finishing eighth for MVP despite missing half the season to injury — and he was back in time to light up the NLDS in October. He posted another 4 WAR in 2014.

But missing on Ramirez was fine with Athletics Nation at the time because we (myself included) really didn’t want to give up Dan Straily to get him. Straily had jumped onto the radar as a top prospect, and he did go on to have a decent 2013 for Oakland and then an MLB career thereafter, but in retrospect he should have been expendable if there was a chance to meaningfully increase their championship odds.

That’s not meant as a direct comparison at all. Luzardo is a more heralded prospect than Straily ever was; Marte is a rental whereas Ramirez was a more complicated and longer-term salary dump; and it’s all just one cherry-picked example of one possible outcome. The A’s got Sean Manaea from the Royals for two months of Ben Zobrist, and Manaea has worked out wonderfully and is now a huge part of a contending rotation. Sometimes the prospect does strike gold.

But sometimes they don’t, and you’re left wondering what would have happened if you went bold and bought the biggest upgrade available at the crucial moment. This year, we’ll find out for sure. After all, while Manaea worked out for Oakland, Zobrist did help deliver a ring to his new team, in the classic win-win swap.

And the A’s certainly did find an impact upgrade. Marte is exactly the type of hitter they need, with on-base ability on a team that can’t get on base, and a reliably high batting average on a team that often needs just one more hit. He’s a fast runner, and a good defender who can play center field. He’s a perfect fit, and he’s the real deal, not some buy-low discount option that requires a long explanation.

Maybe the gamble will yield a ring for the A’s and maybe it won’t, maybe we’ll rue the day Luzardo got away and maybe not, but the front office isn’t messing around with what might be their final chance at contention before the next rebuild. Whatever your reaction, and whatever the ultimate result, it’s definitely not a boring move. Because holy crap, Oakland just traded Jesús Freaking Luzardo, for an awesome rental.

Did not see that one coming.