I wonder who was more nervous on Sunday afternoon: Jeff Samardzija or Billy Beane?
Beane is notorious for not actually watching Oakland's games, but I would guess he paid a little more attention to this one. Samardzija made his A's debut against the Blue Jays. And while it was just one start of 16 or so he'll make for Oakland this season -- and hopefully a few more in October -- it was an important one. Samardzija obviously wanted to get off to a good start for his new teammates, and Beane, not that he cares what the pundits say about the deal, certainly has a lot riding on Samardzija's performance.
Samardzija was terrific, allowing five hits and one run in seven innings as the A's beat the Blue Jays 4-2. Pumping it up to 97 mph on the radar gun, Samardzija flashed the big right arm that turned him into one of the National League's best pitchers with the Cubs (he had been voted on to the NL All-Star team by the players despite his 2-7 record). But the 29-year-old had something to prove as well: After posting a 1.68 ERA through May, he'd had two rough outings in June that pushed his ERA to 5.45 for the month and 2.83 for the season. Beane is betting those starts were an aberration and that he just traded for a guy who can join Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray for a 1-2-3 combo that lines up nicely in a playoff series in some order (with Jason Hammel, also acquired in Friday night's big trade, in the mix as a fourth starter).
Samardzija threw 57 fastballs, and while he didn't record any strikeouts with it, he did get eight groundballs. That's been a key to his improvement this year: After allowing 20 home runs in 2012 and 25 in 2013, he's allowed just seven this year as his groundball rate has risen from 45 percent two years ago to 54 percent. Four of his five strikeouts came on his splitter, and that pitch and his slider give him two wipeout weapons when he gets to two strikes. Batters are hitting .111 against the splitter and .206 against the slider, with just two home runs combined in 131 at-bats ending with those pitches. With his four-seamer, two-seam sinking fastball and cutter, he's developed into a five-pitch guy, all arguably above-average pitches.
"First impressions are always important," Samardzija said after the game. He also seemed to gain a quick appreciation for his new offense after being staked to an early lead. "The way [the A's] take at-bats is outstanding." No knock against the Cubs or anything.
"He was pretty unbelievable today," A's catcher Derek Norris told MLB.com. "It was even better than I anticipated. Definitely had some adrenaline going through his veins, and you could tell the passion and the excitement in his body language."
That attitude was one reason Beane was willing to mortgage what was supposed to be a big part of Oakland's future -- 20-year-old Double-A shortstop Addison Russell, widely considered as one of the game's top 10 prospects. Trading Russell led to a lot of criticism of the deal, that Beane gave up too much in Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney (the team's 2013 first-round pick) and pitcher Dan Straily for Samardzija, who is under team control for one more season, and Hammel, an impending free agent.
That criticism is a reflection of how prospects are valued these days -- maybe overvalued. There is no guarantee that Russell will develop into a star, as promising as he looks right now. Do I really need to list other recent top prospects? Jesus Montero? Domonic Brown? Dustin Ackley? Mike Moustakas? Those were can't-miss guys.
So you never know. But Beane knows he acquired an All-Star-quality starter and another solid starter in Hammel. Yes, it's possible that both just pitched the best three months of their careers, but the Oakland rotation was in need of some new blood and depth. After a hot April, its ERA had increased in May and then again in June. With the division suddenly in jeopardy with the Angels and Mariners looking tough, it was risky for the A's to continue betting on Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone and Brad Mills to carry too much of the load.
As much as anything, that's why Beane needed to make the trade. There's obviously huge importance to winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game. Just listen to A's players after the trade was made, from Jane Lee's article at MLB.com:
Norris: "It's a monster trade. When you trade two recent first-rounders, it speaks volumes of what we're trying to do here. We're trying to take this good start we've gotten off to and make a good second-half push. I think it just takes us to a new level where, one through five, we have proven arms coming in and out."
Brandon Moss: "They just got rid of their top two prospects. Not very many organizations do that, regardless of contending or not. Usually when there are teams doing that, it's because they feel like they have an extremely special group that has a chance to do special things. It says a lot about the faith they have in us in this clubhouse, and it says a lot about the faith in the guys that they acquired, and obviously it took a lot to get them."
Sean Doolittle: "The goal is to win the division and get to the playoffs. Once you're there, anything can happen. We think we were built to make a little bit of a run, but none of that is even possible if we don't win the division."
Of course, many will grade this trade on one aspect: Whether or not the A's win (or at least reach) the World Series. I don't think that's quite fair; as Doolittle said, anything can happen in the playoffs. If Samardzija and Hammel pitch well and the A's win the division title, that justifies the risk Beane has taken. Yes, Russell may blossom with the Cubs. But I suppose Beane's response is that there a different ways to win a trade. Especially for a small-market club like the A's that has a group it won't be able to keep intact much longer.
I do agree with something Joe Sheehan wrote after the trade, however; this deal will be a critical part of the legacies for both Beane and Cubs team president Theo Epstein (Jed Hoyer is the Cubs GM, but Epstein, as Joe wrote, is still the face of the front office). Beane probably doesn't care much about his legacy either. He cares about that elusive World Series trip.
As Samardzija showed on Sunday, he can help the A's get there.