The Oakland A's were already the team to beat before making a blockbuster deal to add two starting pitchers from the Chicago Cubs.
Numbers Game looks into the A's giving up their top prospect in order to acquire Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.
The Athletics Get: RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Jason Hammel.
Samardzija, 29, has become a first-rate starting pitcher, even if his win totals don't make that readily apparent. In 78 starts for the Cubs over the past three years, Samardzija has a 19-33 record, but has a 3.83 ERA and 1.27 WHIP are respectable and he struck out 497 batters in 496 1/3 innings, a rate surpassed by eight qualified starters in the past three years. This season alone, Samardzija was 2-7 with a 2.83 ERA and 1.20 WHIP with 103 strikeouts in 108 innings with the Cubs.
While Samardzija's mid-90s fastball drives his results, he's throwing a harder slider than ever before and it's been an out pitch for him.
Moving to Oakland is a great opportunity for Samardzija to be a rotation anchor for a World Series contender. He had never pitched in Oakland, prior to his A's debut Sunday, but Oakland's park has been pitcher-friendly for years, so that ought to keep Samardzija's numbers strong.
He'll be arbitration-eligible at the end of the season, due for a good raise on his $5.345-million salary, but Samardzija is under organizational control for another season beyond 2014.
Hammel is a 31-year-old who was hanging around on the free agent market until the end of January, when he settled on a one-year, $6-million deal with the Cubs. That lack of interest was justified, to some degree, by Hammel's 2013 season, during which he posted a 4.97 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
This year, it's been a different story, as Hammel posted a career-best 2.98 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 17 starts with the Cubs, striking out 104 in 108 2/3 innings in the process.
For such a marked difference, there ought to be some tangible differences in Hammel's game. His home run rate is down and he's leaving a greater percentage of base-runners on, but Hammel's real improvement is that his walk rate is under 2.0 for the first time in his career. He's reduced the percentage of curve balls and change-ups that he throws, focusing on his fastball and slider and, like Samardzija, Hammel's slider has been especially devastating this season. In fact, according to Fan Graphs, Hammel has the most effective slider in baseball this season.
If Hammel continues the way he's pitched this season, he'll be able to cash in as a free agent in the offseason.
Getting Hammel in addition to Samardzija is really a power move by the A's. Instead of settling for the upgrade that Samardzija provides, they also have enough depth with Hammel that LHP Tommy Milone (3.55 ERA in 16 starts) could lose his spot in the rotation. This gives Oakland insurance for injuries to their other starters and, perhaps even better (if not outright done deliberately), prevents Hammel from going to another contending team that is looking to shore up its pitching staff.
Before making this trade, the A's were the top team in baseball and they just added to quality starting pitchers, both of whom are having excellent seasons, so consider this trade to be the equivalent of the A's pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They're all in.
The Cubs Get: SS Addison Russell, RHP Dan Straily, CF Billy McKinney and a player to be named later.
Russell, 20, was the 11th overall pick in the 2012 Draft and, while he's missed a couple months due to a hamstring injury this season, he's shown that he has the bat to be a star in the major leagues, posting an .899 OPS in 185 games in the minors.
Russell has played a total of 20 games this season, 15 since being promoted to Double-A, so he could still use time to develop, but he should be knocking on the Cubs' door by next season. This presents something of an enviable problem for Chicago as one of their many great prospects is shortstop Javier Baez and they have incumbent starter Starlin Castro with the big-league club. Either some players are getting traded or there will be some position changes coming, but Russell is a great get for Chicago -- he's one of the top position player prospects in the game.
25-year-old Straily got roughed up a bit early this season (4.93 ERA in seven starts), losing his spot in the A's rotation, but that was a case of surrendering too many home runs (nine in 38 1/3 IP) as his 1.25 WHIP was pretty much in line with his career average.
Straily doesn't throw hard at the best of times, but he lost a couple miles per hour off all of his pitches and that can make a difference for guys with overpowering stuff. Nevertheless, a 25-year-old with a good slider who has managed a 4.11 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 41 major-league starts (with slightly better numbers on the road) is worth a look for the Cubs.
The 24th pick in the 2013 Draft, McKinney is a 19-year-old centre fielder climbing his way up the minor-league ladder after coming out of Texas high school ball. Overall, the left-handed hitter has a .278 average and .769 OPS in 132 minor-league games, but is hitting .243 with a .729 OPS in 77 games at Advanced Class-A ball. He'll need a little time to develop and the Cubs have other strong outfield prospects on the way too, but add a quality bat to the organization and see where he is in a couple of years.
As much as the Cubs are giving up a couple of quality starting pitchers, players that give the A's an immediate shot in the arm heading into the second half of the season, they got quality assets in return. If Russell does make it as even an above-average starter at shortstop, and one of Straily or McKinney provides some kind of value, then the Cubs will eventually reap the rewards of this deal.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.