2014 is going to sting for a long time. Life goes on, sure, but all over this postseason, there are reminders of those trades we don’t want to talk about and that game we don’t want to talk about. And I’m not even talking about Josh Donaldson – that was after the 2014 season. I’m talking solely about the two July blockbusters that created that team that would skate into the second Wild Card spot on the final day of the season and crash and burn in epic fashion on September 30, 2014 to once again be collateral damage on someone else’s road to glory.
Addison Russell was a great prospect and we all dreamed of him becoming the next Miguel Tejada. The A’s shortstop in 2014 was Jed Lowrie, for goodness sake, so Russell was a clear successor. He was untouchable, we thought. He was the future building block, we thought. But then came July 5.
July 5, 2014: Traded by the Oakland Athletics with Billy McKinney (minors), Dan Straily and cash to the Chicago Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.
Now look, I’m an A’s optimist, probably to a fault. I wasn’t mad about this trade at the time, as the A’s had the best record in baseball when it happened, and the plan to load up on pitching for a deep October run seemed clear to me. Here’s what I said:
It’s likely this trade will be talked about for more than just the next two years, however, if Russell pans out like everyone expects him to. Whether they’re saying good things or bad things about the A’s depends on if Billy Beane finally wins the last game of the season. World Series or bust, here we go.
Yep, World Series or bust. With less than half of the season to go and MLB’s best record, the A’s really seemed to be in the position to make that kind of trade. The A’s also had the best run differential in baseball by a pretty wide margin as well, though on the pitching side of things, they were getting career years from Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir, and Sonny Gray was still just a second year starter. This trade made complete sense at the time. It’s hard for us to remember that now, but it really honestly did.
Samardzija was a very good pitcher – not quite an ace, but an All Star who was in the midst of what would be a 3.7 WAR, 3.20 FIP season. He was that type of workhorse arm that could be a solid #2 in a playoff series. The acquisition of him and Hammel certainly made the 2014 A’s better, despite sacrificing part of 2015 and beyond. But then came the even more controversial move on deadline day, July 31. Billy went out and got that #1 in Boston’s Jon Lester.
July 31, 2014: Traded by the Boston Red Sox with Jonny Gomes and cash to the Oakland Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes and 2015 competitive balance round B pick.
There have been “#$%*ing A” trades, but this one was more than that. It was a compete and utter WTF. But I, being the shameless A’s optimist I am, spun this into being a good trade that sort of made sense.
He’s been an exciting player to have on the A’s and get to watch play every day but this season is about winning the World Series, and to do that you need top notch pitching that can shut the opposition down. In 2012, the ALDS games were started by Parker, Milone, Anderson, Griffin, Parker versus Verlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander. In 2013, it was Colon, Gray, Parker, Straily, Gray versus Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Verlander. This year, baseball gods willing, we’ll have Lester, Samardzija, Gray, Kazmir. That’s a quartet of number ones like nothing we’ve had in recent years. I’ll miss Cespedes but as always I trust Billy Beane knows what he’s doing.
Doubling down on the strategy of stacking the deck with top notch pitching to win a short series seemed like it made a ton of sense. I mean, on July 31, the A’s had already begun to scuffle a little but they still had the best record in baseball at 66-41 that day. The Angels had begun surging and were only 2 1/2 games out of first, but the A’s were still very much in control of their playoff fate, and they had – as I described back then – “a quartet of number ones” to trot out there day after day.
But we couldn’t see then what would come in the final two months. The A’s ended up going 12-17 in August, fell out of first place by August 25, and then went 10-16 in September. It was only the recent existence of the second Wild Card spot that saved the A’s from completely missing the playoffs, but considering what happened on September 30, 2014, I’m not sure which I would have preferred. We had that do-or-die game sooner than we hoped, but we had that true ace in Lester ready to go for it.
Don’t worry, I’m not going rehash that game right now. But watching Lester pitch in the postseason for the Cubs two years later and taking co-MVP honors in the NLCS by winning Games 1 and 5 in dominating fashion is nauseating, as we had him on the mound for a huge game and he couldn’t get it done. Sure, it wasn’t all his fault but still – the A’s lost that playoff game that he started. Lester has pitched in seven posteasons and is 8-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 19 games, and that 2014 performance was the worst postseason he’s had. Single game-wise, only his 2008 ALCS Game 3 performance was slightly worse (a 40 game score vs. a 41 game score).
And then there’s Russell. We’ll never know what he would’ve been as an A, but he remains in the consciousness of “what if” if only by way of the national stage he’s playing on right now. Not only is he coming through with clutch hits in the NLCS, but he’s doing it as a member of the Cubs, who have just won their first pennant in 71 years. Everybody notices and everybody loves Addison and he used to be ours. The A’s look dumb for letting him go. Regardless of the numbers and the transactions that have occurred since, that’s what people notice.
2014 was the most all-in the A’s have ever gone, and its end result was the most epic fail the A’s have ever had. And it’s all on display for the national baseball audience to see every night. It makes me wonder if the A’s can someday overcome this and finally write a chapter of postseason success again. I hope that I live to see it.