Friday night’s trade between the Cubs and Athletics was a classic blockbuster, a potentially defining moment for two franchises at different stages of their respective competitive cycles.
The Athletics are operating in a two-year window, knowing they are financially incapable of maintaining a long-term juggernaut. The Cubs, meanwhile, continue to build toward a future that grows more interesting every day.
So yes, it made sense for the A’s to add right-handers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, even though they own the best record in the majors and the best rotation ERA in the American League.
And yes, it made sense for the Cubs to acquire shortstop Addison Russell, 20, as the trade’s centerpiece, even though they already have two other top young shortstops, Starlin Castro, 24, and Javier Baez, 21.
The Cubs also will receive outfielder Billy McKinney — the Athletics’ first-round pick in the 2013 draft and their No. 2 prospect behind Russell according to Baseball America — as well as right-hander Dan Straily and a player to be named.
The loss of Russell, in particular, could end up haunting the Athletics, whose current shortstop, Jed Lowrie, is a free agent after this season. But when has A’s GM Billy Beane ever been afraid to take an unconventional route?
While other clubs view prospects are precious, untouchable assets, Beane recognizes that such players often are overvalued — and that a team’s chances of winning the World Series are fleeting.
The Rays’ Wil Myers went backwards this season. The Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts is in the middle of a 9-for-91 slump. Even the Nationals’ Bryce Harper is not yet what many anticipated.
In Beane’s view, if Russell becomes a superstar, so be it. The Athletics were not in strong enough position to hold off the Angels, much less make a deep run in the postseason, with a top of the rotation consisting of right-hander Sonny Gray, who is in his first full major-league season, and lefty Scott Kazmir, who has not pitched more than 158 innings in a season since 2007.
With a 2.83 ERA, Samardzija, 29, was 10th in the National League in ERA, and has craved the big stage ever since his days as a wide receiver for Notre Dame. At 2.98, Hammel, 31, was 15th in the NL in ERA, and had previous success in the AL with the Rays and Orioles.
No, these are not long-term pieces; the A’s will control Hammel only for the rest of this season and Samardzija only through 2015. They will need to either re-sign Lowrie or replace him this winter. But as always, they will take their best shot and figure out the rest later.
Make no mistake: The time is right for Beane to go bold. The Yankees and Red Sox are down. The Tigers are vulnerable. And while the Angels are formidable, the A’s still lead them by four games — and that was pre-trade.
The postseason, no doubt, is a crapshoot, as Beane famously once said. But the Athletics’ chances for success certainly increase by adding Samardzija and Hammel without losing a significant piece from their major-league club.
The Cubs, of course, are trying to get to the point where they can make their own win-now trades — and when they do, they should possess the financial resources to keep their competitive window open longer.
Some might find it disturbing that Straily was the only pitcher that the Cubs landed for Samardzija and Hammel. Others might scratch their heads at the way club president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer are stockpiling shortstops. But uh, since when is having too many good players a problem?
The Cubs will find pitching eventually, possibly by trading Castro or Baez. Russell sure looks like a keeper; one rival executive described him as "a tremendous get … an anchor asset."
Castro after this season is signed for five years, $44 million, a bargain for the player that he has become. Baez projects as an elite hitter, but has struggled this season at Triple-A and some question his emotional maturity.
Beyond Baez, the Cubs’ "Core Four" of prospects also includes Triple-A third baseman Kris Bryant, Double-A outfielder Jorge Soler and Class-A outfielder Albert Almora. Russell makes it a "Core Five." By next season, some of these players will start to surface in the majors.
In the meantime, the Cubs still have the makings of a presentable rotation, led by emerging right-hander Jake Arrieta. Lefty Travis Wood could be another long-term piece. Ditto for Straily, Triple-A righty Kyle Hendricks and right-handed reliever Neil Ramirez, who was a starter in the minors.
But back to the deal.
Beane excels at going against the grain, knowing the precise moment when the pendulum of value has swung too far one way. Epstein and Hoyer, by loading up on hitters at a time when virtually every team is starved for offense, might be doing the same thing.
It was only fitting, perhaps, that these are the executives who kicked off the trading season. They may be right. They may be wrong. But bless their hearts, they are unafraid.