A's Light A Spark With July 4th Blockbuster

The Oakland A's have the best record in baseball, but they weren't about to stand pat during this year's July trading period. The A's and the Chicago Cubs got together for the first blockbuster deal of the trade season, as the A's acquired RHPs Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for top prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney and former top prospect Dan Straily.

The Independence Day fireworks show may have taken place at the Coliseum on Thursday night, but the Oakland A's were anything but quiet on the Fourth of July. Oakland sent shockwaves throughout baseball, completing the first blockbuster trade of the July trading period. In the deal, the A's sent top prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney and former top prospect Dan Straily, as well as a player to be named later or cash considerations, to the Chicago Cubs for two top-third of the rotation starters: Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The deal was announced officially on Saturday morning but was completed Friday night.

Just last week, I wrote about what the A's might do to bolster their team at the July trade deadline. In that piece, I outlined the need for the A's to add another pitcher and mentioned both Samardzija and Hammel as possibilities. I speculated that the A's might not have enough chips to acquire Samardzija, who was considered one of the top-two pitchers available this July, but that was when I assumed the A's wouldn't trade Russell.

I didn't think Oakland would acquire two starters, but, in doing so, the A's have set-up their rotation to be as deep as any in the league. Each of the past two years, the A's have missed out on an opportunity to move deeper into the playoffs because they faced a team with a deeper starting rotation. This deal puts the A's in a better position against a team like the Detroit Tigers in a short series.

Samardzija is a 29-year-old right-hander who has spent his entire career in the Cubs' organization. The Notre Dame product was more famous for being the Golden Domers' top wide receiver than their top starting pitcher in college, but he signed with the Cubs after the 2006 draft to a big money deal rather than pursue a career in the NFL. He made his major-league debut with the Cubs in 2008 and spent his first four seasons as a big leaguer mostly in the bullpen.

In 2012, Samardzija moved to the starting rotation and immediately found success. He posted a 3.81 ERA and struck-out 180 in 174.2 innings. In 2013, his ERA jumped up a bit to 4.34, but he still struck-out more than a batter an inning (214 in 213.2 innings) and had a decent 3.77 FIP.

This season, Samardzija has really come into his own. Although his record is just 2-7, he has been one of the National League's top starters all year. In 17 starts, Samardzija has a 2.83 ERA and a 103:31 K:BB in 108 innings. He has allowed only seven homeruns and his ERA+ is 135. Samardzija will be in his last season of arbitration-eligibility next year, meaning he is under the A's control for at least the rest of this season and all of next year.

Samardzija features a heavy fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s. When he was in the bullpen, Samardzija's fastball was occasionally clocked at 98. He off-sets the fastball with a cut-fastball, a slider and a splitter. According to BrooksBaseball, "Samardzija has thrown 10,903 pitches that have been tracked by the PITCHf/x system between 2008 and 2014, including pitches thrown in the MLB Regular Season, the MLB Postseason and Spring Training. In 2014, he has relied primarily on his Sinker (95mph), Slider (86mph) and Fourseam Fastball (95mph), also mixing in a Splitter (87mph) and Cutter (94mph)."

Samardzija joins Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir as three starters at the top of the rotation who have the stuff to beat any line-up on any given night in October. Samardzija also gives the A's a starter who has surpassed the 200-inning mark in recent years, something they didn't have before.

Hammel gives the A's rotation depth that will match-up with any rotation in the American League. The right-hander is a nine-year veteran who has pitched for the Tampa Bay Rays, the Colorado Rockies, the Baltimore Orioles and the Cubs during his career. Hammel was a big part of the 2012 Orioles' team that made the post-season. In 2012, Hammel put up a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts. He struggled with Baltimore last season (4.97 ERA), but he has put together a big season for the Cubs this year.

In 16 starts for Chicago this season, Hammel has a 2.98 ERA and a 97:21 K:BB in 102.2 innings. His ERA+ is 129 and his WHIP is 1.013. Like Samardzija, Hammel can run his fastball up into the mid-90s and he has a deep repertoire of pitches that includes a slider, change-up and curveball. Also like Samardzija, Hammel has experience pitching out of the bullpen from early in his career. Both pitchers have post-season experience.

With Samardzija and Hammel joining the A's rotation alongside Gray and Kazmir, Oakland will need to choose one starter from the group of Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Brad Mills to finish off the rotation. Mills is likely to be moved out of the rotation given that he just joined the A's as an injury replacement for Drew Pomeranz. Whether the A's move him off of the roster or into the bullpen remains to be seen, but given that left-hander Eric O'Flaherty just joined the A's bullpen, there may not be room for Mills in the bullpen.

Chavez spent most of the last season in the A's bullpen, so he could be more likely than Milone to head back to the bullpen. If Chavez does move into the bullpen, he could replace the struggling Jim Johnson. Milone does have minor league options, so the A's could send him down to Triple-A, although he has allowed more than three runs only once over his last 10 starts. On Friday, Milone tossed six shutout innings against the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. Pomeranz will also remain an option for the A's either in the bullpen or as rotation depth once he returns from the disabled list.

Before the trade, the A's had second-best team ERA in the American League and the best team starter's ERA. However, ever since Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down with elbow injuries during spring training, the A's were balancing on a delicate precipice in terms of the depth of that rotation. Kazmir has a significant injury history and threw only 150 innings last season, while Gray is in the middle of his first full big league season. Meanwhile, Milone spent much of the second-half of last season the minor leagues, Pomeranz is on the DL and Chavez is pitching beyond expectations. With Samardzija and Hammel in the fold, the A's now have a significant buffer against injuries or second-half disappointments. Given how well the Angels and Mariners have played over the past month, the A's will need all of the reinforcements they can get to hold those two teams off.

Even if all of the A's starters remained healthy and pitching well through the end of the season, they may still have not been that well positioned in a short-series in the post-season. Both Samardzija and Hammel have the kind of stuff that plays well in October. The A's need look no further than across the Bay to know how much having a deep starting rotation capable of racking up strike-outs can matter in the post-season.

This trade also positions the A's to make additional trades if they choose to make further upgrades, specifically to second base. The A's now have a starting pitching surplus and they may find interest in pitchers such as Pomeranz, Chavez or Milone.

With Samardzija under team control through next season, the A's can deal him again in the off-season to recoup some of the talent they gave up in this deal.

Of course, even if this trade brings the A's a World Series ring, it still comes with the risk of haunting them for years to come if Russell, McKinney and Straily blossom into the players the A's projected them to be. Russell, in particular, has super-star talent and the make-up to be an impact player at the major league level for years to come. McKinney is just scratching the surface of his potential, putting together a decent year while playing against competition two-years to his senior in the California League this year. Straily posted an ERA under 4.00 during his rookie season with the A's last year in the hitter-friendly American League. If he can figure out how to attack the strike-zone more consistently at the major-league level and avoid the long ball, he could be a quality member of the Cubs' rotation for many years.

World Series championships carry a value that is hard to quantify, however. The A's have accomplished a lot since 2000, but their inability to win a championship has haunted the organization. It has also cost them marketshare in recent years with the Giants winning two. If this trade brings the A's the ultimate prize, it will be well worth the loss of Russell, McKinney and Straily. If it doesn't, then this trade could be a deal to regret for years to come.

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