For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.
A few weeks before the 2014 trade deadline, the A’s decided to give their starting rotation a needed talent injection by acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs. In return, they sent Dan Straily, Billy McKinney, and top prospect Addison Russell to Chicago.
In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.
It was the Fourth of July and a few weeks before the 2014 trade deadline. The A’s were enjoying the best record in baseball, but they were up only three and a half games in the division on the second place Angels. The team was coming off back-to-back first place finishes, yet each time they lost in five games in the LDS. They certainly did not want to make that three in a row.
The Athletics’ rotation was by no means bad. It was a top five team by RA9, but that was in a pitcher-friendly stadium with a good defense, not to mention that they got to beat up on the putrid Rangers and Astros. The team needed depth and some help with the back of the rotation, and Samardzija and Hammel looked to be great solutions to those problems.
The Shark was doing quite well at the time of his trade, but not nearly as well as some would have you believe. He had a 2.83 ERA, but had allowed 10 unearned runs, which ballooned his run average to a good, yet unremarkable, 3.67 RA9. Those runs still count regardless of how poor the Cubs’ defense was. That being said, he still had solid peripherals and had been worth 2.1 WAR up to that point in the season. He was not a rental, either, as his rookie contract ran through the following season.
Believe it or not, Hammel was having an even better season than Samardzija. His 2.98 RA9 was far lower than Samardzija’s, and he had a great walk rate of 5.4 percent. Moreover, his 3.2 WAR at the time of the trade was over a full win higher, too! There were no stats to indicate that his performance was fluky, but it also did not line up with his track record, meaning that regression was likely. Even if he were to turn back to a back-of-the rotation starter, he would still be a help to this A’s team as a rental.
The Cubs, meanwhile were one of the worst teams in baseball and actively tanking. Samardzija and Hammel were clearly not going to be part of their future, so moving them was a no-brainer, and boy did they get a haul for them.
The headliner of the trade was obviously Addison Russell, a shortstop that was one of the top prospects in baseball, who projected to be a plus defender who could get on base at a high clip. His acquisition would result in some tough decisions for the front office to make, though these are the kind of problems that are good to have. Javier Báez was expected to be their shortstop of the future, but Russell was the better fielder, meaning that Báez might have to move to third and Kris Bryant would have to move to the outfield. On the bright side, these position changes would make the Cubs’ defense stronger overall.
Billy McKinney was a 19-year-old prospect who was struggling in Class A ball. As can be the case in prospect analysis, the stats were not telling the whole story. Despite his early struggles, Keith Law believed he had the skills to be an above-average regular in left field some day.
Straily appeared to be more or less a throw-in in this trade. He had a 4.93 RA9 in seven starts for the A’s at the time of the trade, which was approximately a replacement level performance given the pitcher-friendly ballpark and strong defense. Even though he showed that he could be a solid back of the rotation starter the year before, the A’s could not risk continuing to play him as is. He had a higher ceiling than he showed to date that year, and he was still under contract for four more seasons, but parting with him made sense. Conversely, the Cubs could use someone like Straily as a low risk, medium reward player.
The A’s paid a high price for Samardzija and Hammel, but at the same time, it made sense for the team to go all-in that season. The franchise had not won a World Series since 1989, nor had it seen a lot of success since then, making the playoffs only seven times since then and losing in the ALDS six of those times.
The rebuilding Cubs, on the other hand, got a huge haul for two player they did not need anymore, including an up and coming shortstop projected to be a future star. Unfortunately, because baseball is crazy, nothing worked out as planned.
The 53-win A’s suffered a dramatic collapse after the trade, winning only 35 more games the rest of the year and going from 3.5 games up on the Angels to ten games behind them.
They at least managed to earn the second Wild Card spot, but they lost to the Royals in a Wild Card game that will go down in history as one of the most entertaining wild card games ever — personally, it was one of the best games I’ve ever seen.
Samardzija performed as expected for the A’s, which was a good thing. He had a 3.39 RA9 for them with peripherals that at the very least could be described as interesting. He had a jaw-dropping 2.8 BB%, but he also gave up 13 HR. The A’s traded him that offseason to the White Sox, despite the fact that they could still have used him, but likely because they did not want to pay the nine to ten million dollar salary he was likely to get in arbitration (he agreed to $9.8 million with the White Sox). We will discuss him more in a future entry of this series.
As expected, Hammel regressed with the A’s, and more so than they probably expected. He had a 4.52 RA9, a strikeout rate below 19 percent, gave up 13 HR, and was roughly replacement level, which was not a help to the A’s at all.
Hammel actually returned to the Cubs that offseason on a two-year, $20 million deal. It worked out well for the team, as he was a solid back of the rotation starter over those two years. The Cubs declined his third year option, so he signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Royals. He was horrific in the final year of that deal, unfortunately, posting a 6.45 RA9 in 127 IP and -1.6 WAR. Hammel announced his retirement in March of last year.
Straily was not a Cub for long, probably because he gave up 20 runs in 13 2⁄3 IP for them. Chicago then traded Straily to the Astros that winter, and he has bounced around quite a bit in his career since then, with various degrees of success. He peaked with a 4.3 WAR year with the Reds in 2016, though his 2019 season was so bad that not even the Orioles wanted him, and they cut him in June. Straily recently signed a contract to play in the KBO League this year.
Sadly, McKinney has not turned out so well. Chicago sent to the Yankees in 2016 as part of the Aroldis Chapman deal, and then sent packing again in 2018, when New York traded him to the Blue Jays as part of the J.A. Happ deal. He did not make his major league debut until the 2018 season, where he performed well, hitting .252/.318/.462, albeit in only 132 PA. He played half a season with the Jays in 2019, but hit only .215/.274/.422.
Russell turned out to be everything the Cubs hoped for in terms of overall production… at first. He was disappointing with the bat as a below average hitter, but he more than made up for it with his glove as one of the best defensive shortstop in the game. Over his first two seasons, he combined for 7.6 WAR. The subsequent 2017 and 2018 seasons saw Russell’s bat decline further as he struggled with injuries, but he was still a solid everyday shortstop thanks to his defense.
Of course, Russell’s declining on field performance has deservedly taken a distant back seat to the domestic violence allegations made by his ex-wife. The league placed him on administrative leave on September 19th, 2018, and followed that up by suspending him for the first 29 games of the 2019 season, a suspension that added up to 40 games.
The Cubs shamefully decided to allow Russell to come back, and they did so even without the excuse that he was still really good, not that it would have made things any better. It was an act that showed women who enjoy baseball that the Cubs care a lot more about baseball than they do about their players allegedly hitting their wives. To add fuel to the fire, my BtBS coworker Sheryl Ring reported that the team was trying to silence writers who would be critical of the team and Russell.
The Cubs did the exact opposite of what they should have done with Russell and paid for it. It was only because he was terrible in 2019 that they finally decided to cut him. All their decision making in this saga had everything to do with baseball and nothing to do with morals. Since they got their World Series Championship in 2016, I am sure they don’t care.
Before I get to the results, I am doing a little something different that I want to point out. I am no longer going to post the salaries of the players outside of egregious overpays. The league is making so much money that the concept of value needs to die.
That is a little disappointing, but ultimately it did not matter. When you lose the division by ten games, two players can’t make much of a difference, especially in half a season.
It is a little gross to discuss Russell purely in terms of results, but he was very good for the Cubs over his first two years on their way to a championship. Straily’s disastrous half season is inconsequential because it happened while the team was not competitive.
The trade made sense for both sides, even though it predictably worked out better for the Cubs. That being said, we should not downplay the despicable allegations against Russell, nor the Cubs’ awful handling of the situation.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.