Samardzija-Hammel deal makes sense for A’s

Playing for the present

For what the Cubs got in this year’s first blockbuster trade and what it means for them, check out yesterday’s piece. The deal was a play to the future for the Cubs, but what about the A’s? Was it a wise decision?

There are always risks in trades. Heck, there are risks in signings, draft picks, promoting players at certain times. Risk is all part of the game. But don’t let yourself think for a minute that this deal was a bad move for the A’s just because it’s a win-now play that could have consequences.

The Oakland Athletics lead the AL West by 3.5 games with the best record in baseball, 55-33. The move is a play from strength. While there may be an effect on the future due to some impact on the farm system, acquiring two pitchers in a trade signals to A’s fans that the front office thinks this is their year.

The A’s will pay a little under $6 million (combined total for the year is $11.6 million) for their new pitchers to finish the season. Both are pitching very well — sub-3.00 ERAs, WHIP a bit under career averages, and WAR at its best for both pitchers — in years that matter for future salary. At their current pace, the two would be worth 4.5 to 5 WAR over the rest of the season.

While that definitely factors in over the course of the season, the playoffs are the focus of this move. The A’s are counting on the former Cubs to be clutch performers throughout the postseason.

Hammel is in a contract year, and pitching like it. The 2.98 ERA so far this year is far better than his career 4.62 total. His salary will go up from the $6 million he’s already making. He really could be just a rental player, but with the A’s in first place, it seems like the right time to make such a move.

Samardzija, on the other hand, will be in his last year of arbitration. Next year’s pay projects to more than Hammel’s current salary, but the A’s can afford that, as he will be another contract year pitcher. He will need to replicate his current success, though, as this year projects to be his best by far in most important statistical categories (excepting wins, of course). He’s not an ace, but he’s a good mid- to back-end rotation pitcher.

It’s definitely a win-now move for Oakland, but when was the last time we saw two pitchers get traded? It’s a rare, strange occurrence, but given the pitchers and their current situations, I like this deal for the A’s. What makes it a particularly shrewd move is that the A’s may have given up less than they would have if they had traded for Samardzija and a Hammel-like pitcher separately. Had they traded for David Price, the toll figured to be far worse. This way, the A’s have not just two solid starters, but also a somewhat-controllable pitcher in Samardzija.

The climate of the target team

The A’s are an interesting team. It’s only fitting that they make one of the earliest big moves before the trade deadline in a nontraditional fashion. They have six (well, seven) players on the All-Star roster, and three of them are not playing their original position.

The active roster lists only three outfielders after Nick Buss was designated for assignment to make room for the trade, but catcher Stephen Vogt is the starting right fielder, and starting first baseman Brandon Moss is the backup right fielder. It’s typical Billy Beane ball, and it seems to be working so far.

The big reason the A’s have done so well, though, is pitching. A number of youngsters have pitched well, and Hammel, 31, enters as the oldest man on the staff. Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez are 30. At 24, Sonny Gray is the youngster of the rotation, but he’s done well in his sophomore season, as his ERA hovers above 3.00.

27 year-old Tommy Milone was optioned to Triple-A affiliate Sacramento upon Samardzija’s arrival. Brad Mills, 29, was designated for assignment yesterday when Hammel, slated to pitch Wednesday, was activated. Mills pitched serviceably, but likely was kept up over Milone for a few days because he hadn’t pitched as recently.

Milone’s only poor outing since May was against Boston on June 22, when he allowed five runs in as many innings. His ERA is 3.55 this year. Perhaps he will return sometime after the All-Star break.

What is truly remarkable about the collective pitching performance of the A’s this year is that ace Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are out for the year after having Tommy John surgery. While I have doubts that Griffin is better than a late-rotation man, Gray and Chavez have surprised me by their pitching this year. Gray, Chavez and Kazmir (the last of whom leads the staff at 10-3, 2.53 ERA) are the three rotation pieces who will stay in place amidst the changes. Parker is a big loss, but the A’s have coped well, due to some pitchers stepping up .

So why did the A’s make a move for pitching when they’ve done so well in that regard this year?

Improving on a strength

Think Phillies in 2010 and 2011. With pre-injury Roy Halladay and a young Cole Hamels, the pitching was solid. They traded for Roy Oswalt before the deadline, and he pitched to a 7-1 record with a 1.74 ERA down the stretch. The team ended up not getting past San Francisco in the NLCS and they signed familiar face Cliff Lee. This became the Phillies’ big chance at getting another World Series title.

It didn’t end up working out in the playoffs and the team fell apart, but they won 102 regular season games. Pitching played a huge factor in that.

This is similar to what the A’s are trying to do. They’re setting up a rotation they expect to perform well in the postseason. It sets them up for success about as much as the next team.

The reality about the playoffs is that the hotter team almost always wins. If one team’s offense falters at the wrong time, the number of wins that team had doesn’t matter. That’s what happened to the 2011 Phillies, and that’s a reality the A’s may have to face. But at least the front office has done all it can to put the best team on the field to create the chance at a postseason run.

Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.

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