MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Oakland Athletics

Samardzija Trade Increases Pressure on Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ A’s to Cash In and ‘Win Now’

It was only a matter of time before pitcher Jeff Samardzija was to be dealt. Having recently refused to sign a contract extension with the Cubs, his days in the Windy City were numbered. All that was in question was his destination.

Unexpectedly, the move happened well before July 31—on Friday night, to be exact—as the Oakland Athletics swooped in and nabbed both Samardzija and fellow starter Jason Hammel from Chicago  in exchange for minor leaguers Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily along with a player to be named later.

Bolstering their pitching staff, while simultaneously preventing others from doing the same, makes the transaction quite a coup for Oakland general manager Billy Beane—a man that has been consistently looked at under a microscope  by sabermatricians and has seen his ideals publicized and dramatized on paper and on screen.

For a franchise and a front office executive known for making under-the-radar moves in order to stay within a low payroll, this move was out there for all to see. And its message was clear: The A’s are entering “win now” mode.

There’s good reason for the bold stance. In a year of parity, the Athletics (with six members selected to the All-Star squad on Sunday) were the leaders of the pack even before landing Samardzija and Hammel. Now, they gain strength in an area that was already formidable.

As of Monday, Oakland arms rank second in the majors with a 3.15 team earned run average and opponents are hitting .231 against them.

The A’s also possess a balanced offense that can tip the scales of victory in their favor. Collectively, they’ve scored the most runs and have slugged 92 homers. Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss into this week’s showdown versus San Francisco with 19 round-trippers apiece, while Yoenis Cespedes (last year’s Home Run Derby winner) has 14—not to mention a cannon for an arm in the outfield.

With all this talent in place, the A’s can no longer be seen as the “little engine that could.” They are a legitimate locomotive—and this is the best chance for Beane to win that elusive World Series pennant after nearly two decades on the job.

For all the criticism directed toward Beane for his revolutionary way of evaluating players, his team’s postseason record has been far from remarkable.

Since taking the GM role of the A’s from Sandy Alderson following the 1997 season, he’s seen his team get to the playoffs on seven occasions—but advance past the Division Series only once. The lone League Championship Series appearance, in 2006, resulted in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers—a club that’s given them October fits as of late.

In both 2012 and 2013 ALDS, Oakland was felled by Tiger pitching in deciding fifth games. To be more specific, it was Justin Verlander who rendered the A’s powerless.

The former Detroit ace was fully aware of the meaning behind Thursday’s deal.

“I found it very interesting,” Verlander said, as reported by MLB.com. “Really, when I saw that trade, I thought that they made that trade for us. No doubt about it in my mind..If they want to win the World Series, they’re envisioning that they have to go through us, and, even though it’s been two fantastic series, it’s been heartbreaking for them the last two years.”

He’s certainly correct that the Athletics are looking ahead to a potential meeting with Detroit in this year’s postseason. But it should be the other AL contenders fearing Oakland.

Adding Samardzija, who was among the National League’s best in terms of ERA, along with Hammel to a rotation that is already stacked. Cy Young candidate Scott Kazmir is turning heads with every outing, budding ace Sonny Gray is shutting down capable lineups and a solid No. 4 starter in Jesse Chavez makes this deep starting pitching staff that much deeper.

The (very) early returns on the trade are quite positive, as Samardzija was victorious in his debut with the team—allowing one run over seven innings while striking out five against Toronto on Sunday. It was just his third win of the season, but he should get them at a much higher rate in Oakland—as a lack of run support in Chicago proved to be his undoing in garnering a high volume of “W’s.”

While Samardzija is a known quantity, the jury is still out on Hammel. Granted, he comes to the Bay Area with an 8-5 record and a 2.98 ERA. But he’s been inconsistent in Tampa Bay, Colorado, and Baltimore. The 31-year-old is currently in the midst of his best big league season, so it’s possible he’s found his touch—at just the right time for Beane and the A’s.

That said, the risk of this deal is relatively high. Hammel could regress—while Samardzija could falter in the American League. The highly-touted prospects shipped to the Cubs system—Russell and McKinney were ranked as the A’s top two prospects by Baseball America—could live up to the hype and eventually pan out.

But the rewards far outweigh the risks—especially in the near future.

Many expected Billy Beane and Oakland to be passive and content with the current roster as the team looked to protect its lead in the AL West. But he had other plans, and those plans were to add more horsepower to an already top-flight vehicle—even if its showroom is the dump old-school venue known as O.co Coliseum.

Beane is banking on the additions of Samardzija and Hammel to help lock down the rotation and build on the team’s impressive first half. He’s setting the bar high, and even though the pressure is on, the necessary moves have been made to do more than just unseat the Tigers for the AL pennant. The World Series is a necessity…and can become reality this October.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as the Washington Examiner. He is currently the host of his own sports history podcast, 'Profiles in Sports'. While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. Nothing would please him more than a World Series title for his beloved New York Mets.

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