Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lester, trade loom large as A's straggle to playoffs

Tuesday's American League wildcard game is a beauty, with the Oakland Athletics sending Jon Lester against the Kansas City Royals and James Shields. Both arrived in controversial trades. The Shields deal already has worked out for the Royals, and Lester still has a chance to save his trade if he is the postseason pitcher that he always has been.

The Oakland Athletics acquired Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox to get them through the postseason. Tuesday night in Kansas City, Lester has a chance to do it (Keith Allison/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 license).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The backdrop couldn't be more different for the Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals approaching their wildcard playoff game Tuesday night in Kansas City.

For the Royals, this playoff turn is their first in 30 years, since the real glory days, 1985 and its world championship. They are celebrating. The Royals have fought inch by inch to become a playoff team in the last couple of years, surviving to the last week last season and actually making a bid for the American League Central this year before settling in as the lead wildcard.

For the Athletics, an unimaginable nightmare continues. The Athletics lost 30 of their last 46 games, blowing a six-game lead in the AL West to the surging Angels, who won it going away. The Athletics, far from their days with the best record in the game, finished 10 games down to the Angels and fought to the final day to secure the final spot in the playoffs. So, the Athletics enter this game as a sinking ship. And their playoff history isn't glorious. The A's have been to the playoffs seven times in the 21st century, and won only one playoff series.

Many will tell you that the A's are where they are because of a certain trade they made on July 31. For the sake of Oakland general manager Billy Beane, we'll grant that saying so is a slight over-simplification, even though we never liked the trade for the Athletics. But it's not just a slight over-simplification. It's premature.

The Athletics are hanging this game on Jon Lester, who is in the cross hairs of a tortured narrative. Lester has done a fine job for the A's (2.35 ERA in 11 starts), and no one should blame him because the A's traded Yoenis Cespedes to get him in the deal that has taken a huge piece from the Athletics batting order. But it comes down to games like this for Lester, because games like this are why the A's got him. To some degree, Lester can ratify a very controversial trade for Billy Beane by coming through in this game.

And Lester is uniquely equipped to do it. He has pitched better against the Royals than against any other team in his career. The Royals are batting .196 with one homer against Lester in 353 plate appearances going back to 2006. Lester's record against the Royals is 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA in 13 starts (88 innings) with a WHIP of 1.068. The A's won only two of seven meetings with the Royals this year, and Lester pitched both of the wins, which went 8-3 and 11-3. They were the only games against the Royals in which the A's scored more than three runs. The Royals shut them out twice.

Lester has a 2.11 ERA in 11 starts and two relief appearances in the postseason. So, the A's have the right guy pitching in this game. One hopes. Because if Lester isn't the guy to pitch in this game, then this season will live in infamy for the Athletics. The Cespedes-for-Lester deal will go down as one of the biggest trading deadline blunders ever. Can the pitcher for whom Beane sacrificed so much offense do the job that he was brought in to do?

If Lester is the right guy, then he pitches the A's through Kansas City and then, all of a sudden, they're in a five-game series with the Angels, and you know the A's would relish that after how these last couple of months have gone. Lester can come back for Game 3 in that series, and there he would work in another critical moment. After what the Angels did to the A's last time they met, sweeping them four in Anaheim and blowing them right out of the division race ... these are games that the A's will want to play. And if the A's can get past the Angels, they will be lined up for two starts from Lester in the American League Championship Series.

The book is closed on Cespedes for this year. He has one more year on his contract with the Boston Red Sox, and he just drove in 100 runs for the first time. The Red Sox made out well, and they can take a crack at Lester on the free-agent market.

As far as the A's are concerned, the facts aren't all in. The trade certainly blew up on them down the back stretch as the A's continuously lost two out of every three games because they couldn't score. They're worse off for going in as a wildcard instead of the league's top seed. But all of that can be overcome with some pitching in the postseason. We still think the A's won't hit enough to go very far. But if Lester is everything that Beane traded for, then he will win some key games coming up and the A's could last for a while.

Some believe the Lester trade should somehow be compared with the deal that brought James Shields to the Royals, for whom he is the starting pitcher in this wildcard game. You can argue for their similarity, if you'd like, but the only similarity we see is that they are both trades. They are trades made by very different clubs for very different purposes.

Unlike the Athletics, who traded for Lester so they can make a big move in the playoffs, the Royals acquired Shields because they just needed someone to anchor their pitching rotation and help them contend for the playoffs. The Royals have never developed that guy and general manager Dayton Moore, entering the final year of his contract, paid big for Shields last spring.

Moore sent Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Patrick Leonard and Mike Montgomery to the Tampa Bay Rays in December 2012 and brought back Shields, Wade Davis and Elliot Johnson. The Royals were pretty roundly panned for the trade. With only one winning season since 1993 as they made the trade, the Royals were finally getting it right with player development. It didn't seem sensible for the Royals to deal away promising players when they still appeared a couple of years from contending. Dealing a big piece of long-term future for a short-term future that wasn't promising, the trade smacked of desperation for a general manager in the last year of his contract.

But when we look at the Royals now, we can see how the pieces fit. The Royals have plenty of players, many of them quite talented, who can run out to the outfield, first base or designated hitter. They can't get Alex Gordon, Jerrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, Nori Aoki, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Josh Willingham all into the same lineup. Two of those guys have to sit. We can't say the Royals are better off without Myers, who won the American League Rookie of the Year in 2013 with a 131 OPS-plus, but they aren't scrambling to fill his position, either.

The true gold in this trade is the pitcher Moore thought he was getting, because that's the pitcher who arrived. Shields has made that trade work for Moore by giving the Royals presence and credibility for their pitching staff. In two years with the Royals, Shields has taken 34 starts each time, throwing 228 2/3 and 227 innings for ERAs of 3.15 and 3.21.

If all the Royals got in the trade were Shields, it was worth making. The Royals could not have made this long climb to the playoffs without him. The club definitely improved around Shields, but if the Royals hadn't made that move for a No. 1 starter, they would be the Milwaukee Brewers, sitting at home.

Then the Royals made the trade even better for themselves by figuring out what to do with Davis. The Royals originally tried Davis as a starter, and it wasn't for him. The Rays had already reached that conclusion, which is why all 54 of his appearances for them in 2012 came from the bullpen, but the Royals had to see for themselves. They saw a guy who posted a 5.32 ERA and couldn't get past the third inning.

Now Davis is the eighth-inning hold guy, throwing an ERA of 1.00. With Kelvin Herrera throwing 100 miles per hour in the seventh, Davis tossing a 1.00 in the eighth and Greg Holland throwing 46 saves in the ninth, the Royals are well set on the days when Shields doesn't pitch eight or nine innings.

Whatever happens in the wildcard game, the Shields trade already is a success for the Royals. They finally made it to the postseason. For the A's, an old postseason hand who barely made it to the playoffs this time, their trade to bring in Lester hasn't been everything they would want. And it might not ever be. But it still can become good enough rather quickly.