After sacrificing two top prospects, the A’s are now all in for 2014

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A’s general manager Billy Beane was famously quoted in Moneyball saying “my #@!% doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs.”

He couldn’t possibly have made it any more clear Friday that he no longer feels that way.

In trading his preseason No. 1 and No. 2 prospects to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, Beane was trying to give a team that’s been baseball’s best for three months a better chance of being its best in October.

It was easily the boldest move Beane had pulled off since he traded Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street and Greg Smith to the Rockies for Matt Holliday following the 2008 season. That deal proved to be one of Beane’s worst, as Holliday was traded again for a disappointing haul at midseason and the 2009 A’s floundered to a 75-87 record.

This time, the A’s cashed in one of the game’s 10 best prospects in 2012 first-round pick Addison Russell, plus 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney. It’s a huge blow to a minor league system that hasn’t been churning out a lot of talent. In fact, the only A’s draft picks to suit up for the team this year are Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle (a first baseman-turned-closer) and Dan Straily. Straily was also sent to the Cubs as part of the deal.

In return, the A’s acquired half of their upcoming postseason rotation, bumping Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone to also-ran roles, if everything goes according to plan. Chavez will most likely stay in the rotation for now, but given that his career high for innings is 130 (and he’s at 103 right now), the A’s might have been surmising that he’d wear down. Milone, who has a fine 3.55 ERA this year, is likely to get bumped to the pen or to Triple-A.

It’s curious that the A’s didn’t instead target an ace like David Price or Cole Hamels if they were willing to part with Russell. But there’s no denying how effective Samardzija and Hammel have been this year. They both had ERAs a bit under 3.00 for the Cubs, with practically identical strikeout rates (103 strikeouts in 108 innings for Samardzija, 104 in 108 2/3 innings for Hammel). But neither have the October track record another GM might have preferred. Samardzija, a career Cub, has never pitched in the postseason. Hammel has made three postseason starts with a 4.80 ERA. One concern with him is that he’s never topped 180 innings. Right now, he’s on pace to pitch 200 in the regular season alone.

So, the A’s are certainly a better team now. But they were almost certainly October-bound whether or not they made the trade. Perhaps they were worried that the Angels, who look like the AL’s second best team, could overtake them in the AL West, putting them in a wild card game. Clearly, their chances in October are much better if they avoid that fate. Still, Samardzija and Hammel only move the needle so much in the postseasson, and the long-term future doesn’t look so healthy.

As terrific of a job that Beane has done finding bargains like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Chavez, John Jaso and others, the price to keep all of those players in arbitration is about to go through the roof in the coming years, and Beane is going to have to pull off more miracles to supplement his core talent if the farm system isn’t up to the task. Now not only are they going to pay Samardzija about $10 million next year (Hammel is a free agent at season’s end, Samardzija has one year of arbitration left), but they lost the chance to save about $5 million at shortstop by replacing Jed Lowrie with Russell.

If it were anyone except Beane in charge, I’d say the A’s window is now this year and next, with a bleak period to follow. But maybe he’ll keep it going. And if he can bring a world championship to Oakland before then, then that long-term price hardly matters.

No one pounds the zone anymore

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“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.

Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:

Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?

There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.

As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.