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What the Cubs-A's Blockbuster Means for the Phillies

The Phillies could get a highly ranked prospect despite recent history! Really? Well, maybe.

Ruben Amaro Jr. receives one of the many insulting trade offers he has earned.
Ruben Amaro Jr. receives one of the many insulting trade offers he has earned.
Christian Petersen

While July 4th is a holiday for almost everyone in the United States, it is apparently just another day in the office for Billy Beane and Jed Hoyer. The GMs of the Athletics and Cubs, respectively, hashed out a deal over the holiday that has shocked the entire MLB audience. We'll get to what makes the deal shocking and what this means for the Phillies and us the fans further down. As we will see, this trade might reopen the recently conservative trade market just as the Phillies finally seem to have decided to maybe retool a bit. But first, let's go over the pieces in the trade, their value to their new teams, and their futures.

The A's received Jeff Samardzija, with a year and a half of team control and Jason Hammel, a rental. Samardzija has finally become the top-of-the-line starter the Cubs expected him to be, just in time to be shipped out for prospects. He is running a 2.83 ERA, 3.07 FIP, and 3.20 xFIP. That means he's been about 20-25% better than the average pitcher at preventing runs. (For reference, Hamels has been 10-20% better and Lee was 15-30% better prior to his injury.) He's walking fewer batters, generating more groundballs, and suppressing more home runs. It is possible this improvement is a blip and he'll go back to being an above average, but not star-caliber, starting pitcher later this season or next. Even if he does, he's still a good addition to any rotation. Consider also that his breakout confirms the potential scouts had seen in him and that he is only 29 years old. So, Samardzija is a low-risk, high-reward acquisition.

Jason Hammel is not the key piece in this deal for the A's, but he is the most interesting piece. Hammel now is considered a back of rotation guy whom the Cubs gave a $6M, 1 year contract in the off-season in hopes that he would be a trade-chip in July. Boy, did the Cubs hit the lottery. Hammel is having a career year, a little bit better than his shortened 2012. He's running a 2.98 ERA, 3.16 FIP, and 3.23 xFIP, and is about 15-20% better at preventing runs than the average pitcher. His K-rate is up, his BB-rate is down, and if he keeps this up he's almost as good as Samardzija. Of course, most don't believe Hammel will keep this up. As a starter, he has a career 4.68 ERA, 4.15 FIP, and 4.08 xFIP, and he will be 32 years old in September. Most likely, he will revert to a league average (or worse) pitcher. But, then again, his success this season comes primarily from a large improvement in his swinging strike rate. It now sits at 10.7%, while his career average is 8.2%. Moreover, a large portion of that improvement comes from batters missing pitches out of the zone at a much greater rate. Batters are not swinging at more pitches out of the zone against Hammel, but they are missing a lot more. In other words, he seems to have made an adjustment that allows him to miss more bats, and missing bats swung is the best thing a pitcher can do in general on any given delivery. Plus, when at bats end on swinging strikes that were otherwise balls rather than continue on fouled off out-of-the-zone pitches, it usually leads to fewer walks. And these two things together make Hammel interesting. Generating swinging strikes is a reliably repeatable skill. He might have discovered that skill. So, he could be a better bet than his past suggests.

The A's, then, solidified their rotation. If they had had Samardzija and Hammel all season instead of all of the A's starters not named Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez, or Scott Kazmir, then they would have 3.4 more fWAR and be in the conversation for best rotation in MLB. (Yeah, yeah, I know that's a ham-fisted analysis, but the point is true and the counter-factual evidence is as good as I can do without writing a whole article about it.) But they paid a lot to do it. The price was Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, and Dan Straily. Russell is a 20 year old top prospect: #11 on MLB's list and #14 on BA preseason. Here are some numbers. 19 in A+: 504 PA, .275/.377/.508, 12.1 BB%, 23 K%, 21/3 SB/CS. 20 in AA: 57 PA, .333/.439/.500, 14 BB%, 14 K% (SSS due to injury but still, wow). And Russell is a very good defensive SS. In other words, Russell by himself is the kind of return we Phillies fans are dreaming on through this slog of a season. But Russell is not by himself in this deal. He comes with fellow prospect Billy McKinney, an all bat OF who demolished rookie ball last year and is now adjusting to A+ at 19. According to BA he was the #2 prospect in the A's system. Oh, and then there is Dan Straily who is fodder for the Cubs' rotation that is now rather depleted. (There's a PTBNL. I assume that won't turn out to be Domingo Santana.) In sum, the Cubs got the A's two best prospects and a stop-gap, plus something else, for one low-risk star quality starter and one volatile starter currently pitching like a star.

What a wonderful world it would be if the Phillies could snag such a package before the deadline (or after, but that's much less likely). I have for a while believed that acquiring a prospect like Russell in a mid-season trade was rather unlikely. Most organizations have been locking up their top prospects as they get to (or even before they get to) MLB. And the truth that blockbuster mid-season deals rarely produce postseason success has been hard learned. Moreover, a low-budget organization like the A's seemingly can't afford to trade low cost production for high cost production. But this trade has forced me to reconsider. This trade gives us two general reasons to hope that the Phillies can get a higher quality prospect than we might have anticipated. 1) It shows that there still some circumstances under which an organization will part with its best prospects. 2) The A's have now put pressure on other teams in the AL to improve. Most directly, they've put pressure on the Angels and Mariners because winning the division is so important. But they have also put pressure on the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Tigers to keep pace with them. 2) requires no discussion: the dynamics there are obvious. 1), however, needs elaboration. Let's take a closer look.

What convinced the A's to give up their two best prospects for short-term pieces that improve the team's chances of winning now but leave the future more nebulous? First, the A's have been the best team in the league this year. Every other team in the AL has holes. So, the the time is right for the A's to push for postseason success. And they are doing it in the most effective way possible: by acquiring starting pitching. Second, Samardzija is not just a rental. He will be around next season as well. And by then the A's might have a surplus of pitching as A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker return from injuries. With such a surplus the A's might be able to get some of their investment in Samardzija back by trading him away. Third, Hammel might not be just a rental. The A's gave Kazmir a 2/22 deal this past offseason. They might be able to keep Hammel for something similar if his success this year does not entice higher bids (much like Kazmir's success last year did not). Fourth, the A's have been able to cobble together good teams from discarded parts from other organizations (this is not an invitation to talk about Brandon Moss in the comments). No hitter on the A's is a product of their farm system. The A's rely on trades and international free agents to construct their rosters. Surrendering Russell is seemingly less of a hit for the A's future than it would be for another team (feel free to draw inferences... now). All these considerations have conspired to push the A's into a surprisingly aggressive short-term move for an organization that cannot use money to paper over its mistakes.

So can the Phillies repeat a deal like this one this season? Do they have a star quality player with some team control and a volatile performer they could package? Are there other teams who might want to move now to take advantage of an open window? Are any of those teams confident enough in their roster-construction abilities to give up a high-end prospect? Fortunately for the Phillies I think the answer to each of these questions is yes.

The trade partner that best fits the criteria is the Blue Jays. Their front office has recently shown a willingness to move prospects for MLB contributors. They also have built their roster mostly from trades and by acquiring cast-offs, Jose Bautista being the most famous example. Ultimately, they do not rely much on using the talent they have developed themselves and know how to construct a roster even when the farm is laying fallow. This means they need not value their prospects as highly as other organizations and will be more willing to part with them. The Orioles and Mariners rely more heavily on developing their own prospects. The Tigers probably don't want what the Phillies have to sell, at least on the high end. The Angels have little to offer. And the Yankees, who are delusional to think they are contenders, don't have much to offer either. The only other team in contention that might fit the bill is the Royals, although they too rely heavily on their farm system; however, they have also shown a recent willingness to trade long-term success for present improvement. (I'm covering only AL teams because the dynamics for a trade like this one within the league are much trickier, not to mention within one's own division.)

From the Phillies' standpoint, the pair that would make the most sense to send for an elite prospect is Cliff Lee and Marlon Byrd. Lee has similar team control as Samardzija and is a better pitcher. And Byrd is a volatile performer currently producing about 20% above average as a hitter (his fielding drags his production down a bit). Furthermore, both Lee and Byrd are aging players with no chance of seeing another competitive Phillies team while they are still valuable contributors on the Phillies. It would be ideal if the Phillies could use these two pieces to get an elite prospect.

Unfortunately, this package has problems. The first is obvious. Lee has been hurt for half the season and there are questions about how effective he will be when he returns and whether he can stay healthy given his age. The second is that Byrd would have no significant role to play on the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have two good corner OFs and neither they nor Byrd would be as valuable in CF. If the Blue Jays acquired Marlon Byrd, Anthony Gose (he of 1 whole fWAR so far this season) would still be their best CF while Rasmus figures himself out again. The Blue Jays certainly need pitching, but they don't need a corner OF. The third is that any package involving Lee is expensive. Samardzija plus Hammel equals less than half of Lee, moneywise. If we try to fill out the package with another good player from the Phillies--be it Byrd, Papelbon, Utley, etc.--the package only gets more expensive. That expense will drive down the value of the prospect(s) received in return unless the Phillies eat salary.

Setting those problems aside, let's assume the Phillies can find a package that the Blue Jays want and would give an elite prospect for. Perhaps the Phillies convince the Blue Jays, who need some bullpen help, to take Papelbon too. What elite prospects do the Blue Jays have to offer? Well, the prospect most similar in status to Addison Russell is Marcus Stroman. But he has become a key member of their starting rotation. I can't imagine they would move him for anything short of himself but, you know, in a different body. And their other prospects are further away from MLB, have lower ceilings, or both. That is to say, even if the Phillies could create a package like the one used to get Addison Russell (and McKinney who is a good get too, if more of a lottery ticket), they can't a prospect like Russell from the Blue Jays. The Phillies will probably have to turn to another organization to get a top prospect. The question is whether any other organization will be willing to part with one.

Where does this leave us? The A's-Cubs trade gives us hope that the Phillies will be able to pry a top prospect away from a contender with a mid-season deal. But it remains unclear with whom the Phillies could make such a deal and, as a result, which players would need to be included. Nevertheless, the A's-Cubs trade provides a kind of formula or a standard for how we ought to value prospects against established contributors. I highly encourage you to try to apply the formula. Come up with trades that fit and share them in the comments. Speculate wildly. Just expect to be wrong because trade speculation is always wrong.