When the blockbuster deal between the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A's was announced last night, it reminded some people of another deal back in 2011 by a team with the best record in baseball that was all but assured of a playoff birth, too. You may remember it.
THE HUNTER PENCE TRADE.
Yes, the trade that still haunts our dreams, the one that gave the Houston Astros two of the better young prospects in the game, Jonathan Singleton and Domingo Santana, young starter Jarred Cosart, and reliever Josh Zeid, all of whom are now playing for Houston, in exchange for Hunter Pence, who immediately filled the team's need for a right-handed, middle-of-the-order hitter.
Pence played well with the Phillies that year, but was an unnecessary addition for a team that was well on its way to winning more than 100 games and was running away with the division. In the end, the Phillies lost in the NLDS in five games to the Cardinals, with Pence notching just four base hits in the series.
One year later, Pence was shipped off to San Francisco for the oft-injured Tommy Joseph, outfielder Nate Schierholtz and reliever Seth Rosin, none of whom are either highly touted prospects or positive performers for the Phils.
It was a trade made by a team that had the division locked up, in the hopes it would be the move that put them "over the top" when the playoffs rolled around. But as we all learned that year, the playoffs are a crapshoot, and Pence could only do so much to help.
Which brings us to the Independence Day Oakland-Chicago trade. General manager Billy Beane, seemingly believing that the market right now over-values prospects, sent perhaps the best shortstop prospect in baseball, Addison Russell, who was ranked anywhere between the 7th and 14th best prospect before the season started, to Chicago, along with Dan Strailey and 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney. In all, Oakland's three top prospects were sent to Theo Epstein's Cubs.
Teams just don't do this anymore. They don't trade their three top prospects at the trade deadline, and they certainly don't do it when they have far and away the best winning percentage in the league (.616 through Friday), have a +129 run differential, and a 97.8% chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs.
It's as if the spirit of Ruben Amaro left his body, traveled thousands of miles across the country, and took over the person of Billy Beane. I mean, if Beane is exploiting some new imbalance in the market, does this mean Amaro has been ahead of the curve all along?
I'm joking of course, because the Pence trade in 2011 was just bad, and unnecessary, and there's no other way to say it. But this situation is different for four main reasons.
1. Starting pitching is the one position that truly makes a difference in the postseason.
The A's lost two starters to Tommy John surgery before the season even began, and have been relying on youngsters like Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz to get them through it, as well as veteran Scott Kazmir, who has pitched better than anyone could have imagined this year. Despite their American League-low ERA of 3.34, does that rotation scare anyone come October?
Not only that, those young pitchers are all about to shatter their previous highs for innings pitched in a season, and a little insurance on a Kazmir breakdown is pretty smart, too. That's why Beane pulled the trigger for two starters that are having front-line success this season. They give the A's more dependability at the one positionthat can actually improve a team's chances of winning the division and advancing in the playoffs.
2. The American League West is a far tougher division than the NL East was in 2011.
The A's, despite having the best record in the AL, play in a brutally tough division. They only lead the Los Angeles Angels by 3.5 games and the Seattle Mariners by 6. By comparison, the Phillies had a 5 game lead over Atlanta in the NL East on the night of the Pence trade, and a 12.5 game lead over the New York Mets. That's not a big difference until you consider...
3. Winning the division is far more important now than it was in 2011.
If the A's don't win the AL West and get a wild card instead, all of a sudden they're faced with a one-game playoff for the right to continue their season. In 2011, the wild card got to play in a five-game series against one of the division winners, making the differences between winning the wild card and the division virtually nothing. There is far more for Oakland to lose if they don't win the AL West than there was for the Phillies three years ago, and you know Beane wants no part of the sheer madness a one-game playoff brings, where a single play can end a season.
4. The A's, specifically Billy Beane, are more desperate than the Phils were.
As was mentioned by @joecatz on Twitter today, Oakland is less able to keep their core players around for multiple years like the Phillies were, and Beane, who has been bounced out of the playoffs before reaching the World Series six times already, realizes this is probably his best shot at getting to the World Series and winning it. Sure, the window was closing for the Phils back in 2011, but no one expected it to shut so quickly. Oakland probably feels it's now or never, and decided the time was right to go all-in.
At the end of the day, this could backfire in a huge way on Beane. Samardzija and Hammel could turn out to be busts in the American League and, honestly, Hammel was not much of a starter before this season (career 4.80 ERA heading into this season). But Beane also probably thinks he can spin Samardzija for prospects next season if he needs to, and I like his odds of getting a better return for him than the Phils got when they traded Pence to the Giants in 2012.
No, this trade was different from the Pence deal in a few key ways, although there are similarities. Hopefully for Billy Beane, things will work out better for him than the train wreck of the Hunter Pence deal, which haunts us all to this day.