Friday, August 1, 2014

By default, Angels win AL West trade deadline

The Oakland Athletics over-reached at the trade deadline by dealing Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox for Jon Lester. To marginally improve their pitching rotation, the A's tore a huge piece out of their offensive and defensive teams. The Angels, who made less spectacular moves to address a real need, stand to benefit.


Yoenis Cespedes on Jackie Robinson Day in 2012. With Thursday's deadline trade, Cespedes now is subtracted from the Oakland Athletics batting order (hj_west [original], UCinternational [crop]/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

It's certainly an odd state of discourse when the team with the best record in baseball trades its best player and the move is widely praised as a sign that said team is "all in" for a bid to win the World Series.

This journal holds a contrary opinion of Thursday's biggest deadline trade, in which the Oakland Athletics sent left fielder Yoenis Cespedes and a 2015 Competitive Balance Draft pick to the Boston Red Sox for left-hander Jon Lester and left fielder Jonny Gomes. We believe the happiest people in baseball right now, perhaps even the winners of the mid-summer trading season, are the squires of Anaheim, who not only hauled nicely by themselves, but watched their upstate rivals actually make themselves less potent.

The Los Angeles Angels now are two games behind the Athletics in the American League West, but these are the two clubs with the best records in the Major Leagues, and their race to determine which will open the playoffs in a best-of-five series and which will enter a one-game wildcard game stands to be the hottest of the next two months.

To this day, Oakland general manager Billy Beane hasn't won the World Championship any more times than anyone else in the world, and we suspect it will remain that way when all the shouting ends in October. There's no question that Lester, now 10-7 with a 2.52 ERA, makes the front of the Oakland pitching rotation stronger. The Athletics also augmented their rotation, though not really all that much, with their trade earlier in July to bring in pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for Dan Straily and minor leaguers Billy McKinney and Addison Russell.

Looking at the Oakland rotation now, we might set it up with Lester (3.0 WAR in 2014) in front, followed by Sonny Gray (3.0), Scott Kazmir (3.3), Samardzija (2.2 with the Cubs and 0.5 with the A's) and Jesse Chavez (1.1), which leaves out Hammel (3.3 with the Cubs and -0.9 with the A's). That's if they maximally use all the pitchers who they have picked up in their July trades. Just looking at WAR values, they're better off going through the regular season than when they began 2014 with a rotation of Gray, Kazmir, Jesse Chavez (1.1), Straily (-0.2) and Tommy Milone (0.8). Basically, two wins better over two-thirds of a regular season, and another win better if that holds in the final third.

During the postseason, though, when rotation depth isn't such an advantage, it's a different story. For a club trying to win in the postseason, power pitching is indispensable. Rotation depth is not. Indeed, rotation depth is little if any advantage. That's why we did not advocate that the Dodgers trade prospects just so they could have a stronger No. 4 or No. 5 starter. It just doesn't help. Your club really needs three strong starters. Your No. 4 probably gets one start in a seven-game series. Your No. 5 doesn't appear at all. And, should the management decide to use Nos. 4 and 5 more than that in the postseason, then it is taking starts away from the front three, which is utterly self-defeating.

So, the A's stand to front their postseason rotation with Lester, Gray and Kazmir, their best three guys. Where does Samardzija fit in? Two starts, maybe three, even if the A's last deep into the World Series? And now Chavez, who has been quite good, falls out of the postseason mix. To what end?

It appears that by adding Lester and subtracting Cespedes (3.0 WAR in 2014), the Athletics have made themselves better on one of every five days during the regular season (and one of every three or four days during the postseason), but subtracting that impact hitter and impact defender in left field has made them worse on the other days. It simply isn't obvious that removing Cespedes from the lineup so Lester can pitch instead of Chavez makes the Athletics better equipped to survive in the postseason.

The Athletics already had the second-best ERA (3.19) and the second-best ERA-plus (119) in the American League. The Athletics are good at everything. They lead the AL by scoring 5.0 runs per game and their OPS-plus of 107 is fourth in the AL. It appears though, that the A's have made their pitching marginally better while really taking a huge piece from their offensive and defensive teams.

The Athletics, without Cespedes, really don't have that many bats. Their other hitters who have been to the plate 150 or more times and are with or ahead of the league (100 OPS-plus or better) are Brandon Moss (135), Josh Donaldson (123), Coco Crisp (123), Derek Norris (148), John Jaso (132) and Stephen Vogt (155). But those last three are all catchers, which means that, on their best days, the A's will have four guys in the lineup who hit and five who don't. Taking Cespedes out of that batting order is going to hurt.

And that's to say nothing of the depletion of player value through the organization. Cespedes is under contract for 2015, but Lester is not, Samardjzia is eligible for arbitration in 2015, and Hammel probably isn't much worth worrying about either way. The A's also traded away McKinney and Russell, 19- and 20-year-old kids prospering at high-A and AA ball, where they are well under-aged, along with a nice draft pick. 

It just looks dicey from here. Of course, pitching is the most important aspect of any baseball team. The defense has the ball in baseball, and if the pitcher can put it where he wants it, the other club won't score. But trading that draft pick and a middle-of-the-order producer like Cespedes, a game-changing player, for two months of the difference between pitching Lester or Chavez -- it's a stretch.

The Angels were quite active during the trading season, as well. But they gave up nothing that they will miss to address a true weakness on their club, their bullpen. They have added Joe Thatcher, Jason Grilli and Huston Street -- basically rebuilt their entire bullpen -- for players who they don't stand to miss now or in the future. Thatcher gives them a hard-throwing lefty they needed, Street gives them an accomplished closer they needed, and Grilli, who also is an accomplished closer, gives them a nice option to go with Joe Smith in the eighth inning. The Angels never seemed to be sold on Ernesto Frieri as their closer, so they dealt him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Grilli. They gave up nothing about which to be jittery for Thatcher. To get Street, they had to part with minor-league second baseman Taylor Lindsey, but they have a good minor-league second baseman behind him in Alex Yarbrough.

In total, during the trading season, the Athletics picked up more major league talent, but they also gave up a lot more major league talent. The Angels made themselves better in a way that they really needed without giving up anything. The A's made themselves marginally better in ways that weren't really necessary, and they tore the heart out of their everyday lineup while putting a fair dent in their prospect pipeline.

It says here that the Angels won the trading deadline in this division simply because the Athletics over-reached, as contenders often do at the trading deadline. The next two month will test some of that claim. But the real test will come a month later.



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