Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Making a choice

WHGB11We normally have to wait until later in July before the trade deadline begins to loom large and teams are prepared to pull the trigger on a trade that could make the difference between making the playoffs and waiting for another year.

The Oakland A’s are not afraid to buck the trend and they did just that on Friday evening in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago Cubs.

I was completely out of the baseball-loop at the time so it was only when I woke on Saturday morning and checked my Inbox that I first heard any news. It came via fellow BGB writer Mark George:

“Oakland may be ready to deal for a Cub SP (according to FOX) @MattBaseballGB – Samardzija or Hammel?”

Hmm, I thought, that would be interesting move depending on who we (‘we’ declaring my A’s allegiance) give up in return. Just as I was about to head to MLBTradeRumors to catch up on the latest gossip, I realised there was another message from Mark …

“Ah, wait @MattBaseballGB, looks like you may have traded for both!”

I couldn’t get to MLBTradeRumors quickly enough to confirm the news that, yes, the A’s had added not one but two starting pitchers to their roster.

My first reaction focused on the other side of the trade, most notably the name ‘Addison Russell’. Russell was the A’s top prospect, a talented shortstop who had been drafted in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft. Oakland have not had much luck in bringing through position players in recent years, made all the more stark by the strong careers of Andre Ethier and Carlos Gonzalez who had been traded away. The trend continued over the winter when Michael Choice, a much-touted outfielder in the A’s farm system, was traded to the Texas Rangers.

Addison Russell represented an enticing change, a position player at last that A’s fans could get excited about. The news that he was now headed to the prospect-laden Cubs was therefore a bit of a kick to the gut, added to by the knowledge that Oakland’s first round selection from 2013, Billy McKinney, was part of the deal too.

As Russell moves through the Cubs’ farm system and ultimately makes his Major League debut later this season or next, it will be difficult not to cast an envious eye in Chicago’s direction and think about ‘what could have been’.

And yet once the initial emotional reaction had moved to quiet contemplation, the trade could only fill me with excitement.

After two division titles in a row, both leading to devastating playoff defeats in close series against the Detroit Tigers, the A’s are going for it. It’s not quite ‘World Series or bust’, but it’s somewhere close to it.

Quality young players are very valuable to a team so it is always a risk to give up a talented prospect like Russell; however for the A’s Front Office it is all about the team, seeing an opportunity to have some success and increasing the odds of making that happen.

Russell may well develop into a good player, yet there’s no guarantee the next four or five years of his career would have played out on a contender in Oakland. Whilst fantasy owners or baseball analysts could look at his performance on an individual basis if that occurred, for the A’s it would very much be a case of an opportunity missed. Of course it would be fun to watch him playing well, but if he wasn’t doing it whilst the team was competitive then it wouldn’t add up to quite so much.

Despite being reigning two-time AL West champs, they once again came into the season with many expecting the big bucks of the LA Angels and Texas Rangers to take away their crown. The current A’s are a wonderful example of getting the most out of every player, from batting platoons to infield shifts, and – accepting that I’m biased in this case – that makes them an easy team to get behind.

Still, if a few players move on and a few more injuries come the A’s way – it’s doubtful the team would have made this move had Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin not been lost for the season before it had even started – then it’s quite possible that they could slip back into the pack once more for a few years.

The A’s had a choice of keeping Russell, hoping he would live up to expectations and that he could do so on a winning team, or adding two good, experienced Major League pitchers to a team that currently has the best record in MLB and should have a real chance to get back to the playoffs once again.

History will be the ultimate judge. For now, it looks to me like a slight gamble that is well worth taking.

Although if Samardzija walks off the mound shaking his arm in discomfort during his A’s debut this evening, I’ll reserve the right to be a fickle fan and to state that I always thought it was a bad idea.

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