If you were out watching fireworks Friday night, Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer created some fireworks of their own in the baseball world by shipping Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in the same trade to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Dan Straily, shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney and (reportedly) a PTBNL (some sources say yes, some no).
The Cubs have made a few minor trades with the A's over the last couple of years (you probably didn't much notice the Anthony Recker for Blake Lalli deal, did you?) but this is the first major deal between the teams since Jim Hendry acquired Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin for Eric Patterson, Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton and Josh Donaldson on July 8, 2008.
That deal, in fact, might be instructive to understanding this one. At the time -- almost exactly six years ago -- the Cubs were "going for it" and had they won the World Series with Harden, that deal might still be looked at as "worth it." What's worth keeping in mind is that the two keys to the deal as seen at the time were Patterson and Gallagher, who were both thought of as hot prospects. Murton had been a starting outfielder for the Cubs in 2007, much as Straily was in the A's rotation last year. Donaldson was just a year past being drafted and was hitting .217/.276/.349 at Peoria in the Low-A Midwest League at the time of the trade, seen as perhaps a failed catching prospect.
Now he's one of the top hitters in the American League. Somehow, I doubt that even Billy Beane thought Donaldson would work out that way.
This deal is different in that both Russell and McKinney are thought of as top prospects. Russell had a hamstring injury during spring training, but is now back and playing well (.333/.439/.500 in 48 at-bats in Double-A). McKinney seems somewhat like Albert Almora, perhaps with a bit more power and not quite as good defense.
Think of the deal this way, assuming there's a PTBNL, in two parts:
Samardzija for Russell and a PTBNL, and
Hammel for McKinney and Straily.
Now, that looks pretty good, doesn't it? Straily finished fourth in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, but struggled early-on this year and has been pitching at Triple-A Sacramento. He'll start at Iowa, just as Jake Arrieta did when he came over from the Orioles a year ago. It would not surprise me to see Straily in the Cubs' rotation before the end of this season. Maybe Chris Bosio can work wonders on him, as he has done with Arrieta. Straily is just 25 and could be a rotation mainstay -- maybe a No. 3 guy -- for several years to come.
Russell is thought by many to be as good a prospect as Javier Baez. With Baez, Russell and Kris Bryant all in the infield pipeline, as well as Starlin Castro entrenched at big-league shortstop, there's a logjam here that could well be broken by more trades, probably in the offseason. Russell or Baez could move to second base. Bryant could still wind up in the outfield. With Darwin Barney hitting better of late, perhaps he might even wind up moved to another team before July 31.
The issue as I see it now is this: This year's Cubs team has been playing quite well for the last month or so, in part because of good pitching from Samardzija and Hammel. Removing them from the rotation makes it markedly worse. It's not as if the Cubs were going to contend this year -- they weren't -- but perhaps they could improve enough to break through the 90-loss barrier, which could be psychologically important for young players like Castro and Anthony Rizzo. I'm sure they'd like to feel the team is going in the right direction at the big-league level, not just in the system, and yes, I believe that does matter. If the big-league Cubs go on a long losing streak again, heading toward 100 losses again, how do you build from there to a winner?
Granted that Russell could be part of a Cubs winner, as could Bryant and Baez and McKinney and even Straily, as well as others such as Arismendy Alcantara.
But this team will now have to go out and get pitching this offseason. I'm assuming -- I have not heard at this writing officially -- that the A's assumed all the remaining money on the Samardzija and Hammel contracts. That's approximately $6 million saved by the Cubs this season, presuming they will replace those two with pitchers from the system (Kyle Hendricks? Dallas Beeler? Tsuyoshi Wada?). That savings could go for a big-time pitcher or two via free agency or trade this offseason, something this team very well needs. The bullpen has been nicely built this year and those pitchers could be a solid pen in 2015 and beyond. But the rotation now has Jake Arrieta as its best pitcher. They'll need more.
All in all, this trade is a positive. Hammel wasn't going to be back -- he's a free agent at the end of this year and at 32, probably will never have as good a year as he's having now. You might say -- and many did -- that the Cubs should have signed Shark, one of their own farm system products (though it should be noted, not Theo's "guy" -- someone signed by Hendry), but he appeared to overvalue himself and the Cubs couldn't come to a contract extension agreement with him, so it was only a matter of time until he was dealt.
This deal makes the A's better in 2014, a year they're going to try to win it all. It also makes the Cubs better in ... well, probably 2015 with Straily, and 2016 and beyond with Russell and McKinney. Remember what I said above? That Josh Donaldson was looking like a failure at the time of the Harden deal? Not that any of the prospects the Cubs got Friday are looking that way, but one of them might succeed in an unexpected way.
In conclusion -- if this one works, Theo & Jed will have pulled off a blockbuster, thinking big, and winning big. If not? Give 'em credit for trying, at least. Good luck to Shark and Hammel with the A's; they have a chance to get World Series rings this year, assuming they can dodge the sewage at the Coliseum in Oakland.
Finally, here's video of both Russell and McKinney that you will likely be interested in watching. Both were shot while the players were with the Stockton Ports in the High-A California League.