July 4th is always a day of pageantry around the game of baseball, though it’s typically quiet on the trade front. Five years ago today, however, the Athletics and Cubs produced some rare fireworks with a memorable swap that created quite the butterfly effect.
The Oakland organization acquired not one, but two top trade targets of that year’s summer market in Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Prying both loose nearly a month before the deadline meant coughing up one of the game’s best prospects in Addison Russell, along with a nice secondary piece in Billy McKinney. Pitcher Dan Straily also went to Chicago to help the team fill innings.
This is the swap that forever gives credence to fan and media notions of “packaging” trade chips, a concept that has been mimicked since but remains relatively rare. The Cubs had good reason to put a big asking price on the two hurlers at that stage of the season.
Samardzija, a pitcher long lauded for his talent, had finally come into his own with a 2.83 ERA through 108 innings. He came with another year of arbitration eligibility, leaving ample leverage with the Cubs. The club could have auctioned him closer to the deadline, held him for a winter trade, or pursued an extension over the offseason to come.
Hammel also owned a sub-3.00 ERA at the time the deal came together, making him an excellent rental asset. His $6MM make-good deal worked out better than the Cubs ever could have anticipated. Top Chicago baseball decisionmaker Theo Epstein could plausibly tell his counterpart, Billy Beane of the A’s, that he would be glad to wait to see what he could get for Hammel on July 31st if Oakland wouldn’t pay full retail for both hurlers.
It was easy for the Cubs to pull the trigger when Russell was plugged in as the headliner. He then ranked as one of the dozen or so best prospects in the game. Best of all, he was already playing at the Double-A level, meaning the Cubs had good reason to believe they would get production out of him in the very near term. McKinney was also a significant trade piece, having only just been taken in the first round of the draft in the prior year.
For the Athletics, it goes without saying that this was an all-in move. At the time, the club was dominating the rest of the league, but facing a stern test from the Angels. Oakland’s all-in bid ultimately didn’t quite work out. The A’s went on to make another major summer strike for a starter, adding Jon Lester from the Red Sox. Lester (2.44 ERA) and Samardzija (3.14) threw quite well, while Hammel (4.26) faded but was sturdy enough. But the Athletics were out-raced by the Halos in the AL West. The A’s took a Wild Card slot, but lost one of the most memorable games of recent memory to the eventual American League-champion Royals.
Ironically, after starting that contest, Lester would end up signing with the Cubs in the ensuing offseason. He later said that the trade made it easier for him to imagine playing in a new city after spending his entire career in Boston. He ended up deciding to join Epstein, the former Sox GM, in Chicago….and ultimately played a key role in the club’s curse-breaking championship run.
Russell was also a key contributor in 2016, earning an All-Star nod and finishing the season with 21 home runs in his age-22 campaign. It seemed he was on his way to being a long-term stalwart and perhaps even a Chicago legend. That has all changed since. After some tepid work on the field, Russell was suspended following accusations of domestic abuse. The team has stuck with him since, but the sheen has long since worn off.
McKinney never appeared in a MLB uniform for the Cubs, but he would help the team out in another way. He again featured as a secondary piece in another major trade, going along with another elite infield prospect Gleyber Torres in the 2016 deal that landed the Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman and helped spur the team’s title run. Torres was no doubt seen as somewhat more expendable due to the presence of Russell and other good young infielders (especially Javy Baez, who has eclipsed him at short). But it no doubt stings quite a bit to see Torres starring in pinstripes.
This was also the first of a series of seemingly incongruous moves involving Straily. He was sent out in the ensuing offseason in the deal that brought Dexter Fowler to Chicago, beginning a notable chapter all its own for the Cubs organization. (That trade also involved the dearly departed Luis Valbuena.) Straily was swapped to the Padres in the following spring for journeyman catcher Erik Kratz, only to be claimed off waivers days later by the Reds. After a surprising 2016 campaign, Straily was shipped to the Marlins in a deal that landed the Reds then-prospect and current NL Cy Young candidate Luis Castillo (who was briefly a member of the Pads before being forcibly traded back to the Fish). Straily was released this spring after two useful but uninspiring seasons in Miami.
So, what of the two hurlers that spurred all this movement? Hammel may not have been at his best in Oakland, but that only helped the Cubbies get a deal to bring him back. They brought him in for an affordable $20MM over two years and certainly got their money worth. Hammel ended up throwing 337 1/3 innings of 3.79 ERA ball before he was sent back onto the open market, helping the team reach the World Series — though he did not crack the ’16 postseason roster.
Samardzija also ended up in Chicago, but with the cross-town White Sox. That swap allowed the A’s to recoup some of the lost prospect value, and, perhaps, get the last laugh in this whole scenario. In addition to Rangel Ravelo, who reached the majors briefly with the Cardinals, the deal brought in three players that remain in the Oakland organization. Marcus Semien effectively took Russell’s place as the long-term shortstop. That has turned out quite well for Oakland in and of itself, as Semien has easily outperformed Russell of late. He reached 3.7 fWAR last year and has already tabbed 3.1 in a breakout ’19 offensive campaign. The deal also included righty Chris Bassitt and catcher Josh Phegley, each of whom has had some ups and downs but currently features as a key cog for the 2019 A’s.
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