When trades bring remorse
Addison Russell represents the fear of every major league fan base. He was once ours. He is now theirs. What did we get in return? Why, oh, why did we trade him at all?
“I’m pretty sure there were some upset fans and stuff,” Russell said Thursday, wearing a Chicago Cubs pullover in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park. “They kind of wanted to see me in an Oakland A’s uniform. I understand that. But it’s not my call.”
Last July, it was the call of Oakland General Manager Billy Beane and Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. With the Athletics in first place and looking to improve, they received starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Cubs got Russell, a shortstop who was Oakland’s top prospect, and two other players.
We are entering trade season— with the July 31 non-waiver deadline now within sight, though barely — and while that means the time for matching needs and wants with available players from downtrodden clubs, it also means time for full-on anxiety. Oakland won the second wild-card playoff berth in the American League, and so the franchise has justified its maneuvering from last July — which also included trading outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for lefty Jon Lester.
But listen to Cubs Manager Joe Maddon talk about the first time he saw Russell work this spring at shortstop.
“I remember the day I saw him for the first time taking groundballs,” Maddon said. “Am I starryeyed right now? Am I reminiscing? ‘ The first time I saw him.’ ”
Jokes aside, there was much to love. Look away, A’s fans.
“I thought he picked up a groundball exactly as it should be picked up,” Maddon said. “His mechanics are sound. ... I like simplicity in everything, and it’s very simple. I like that. . . . And then beyond that, don’t forget he just turned 21. Watch him take batting practice. Listen to the ball off the bat. It’s got a different sound when he hits the baseball, and that’s going to really project over the next couple years — or decade.”
That’s what these deals amount to: trade the future for the present, then bite your nails and hope the future you traded away doesn’t end up being that great. Nationals fans, for instance, watched Denard Span set a club record for hits in a season last year and didn’t have to worry about Alex Meyer, the 6-foot-9 right-hander Washington sent to the Minnesota Twins in return. Meyer hasn’t made it to the majors and entered the weekend with a 6.49 ERA at Class AAA— where he has been moved to the bullpen.
With Span set to hit free agency after this season, that deal doesn’t even contend for the most egregious of all time. Pick one. In late August 1990, the Boston Red Sox figured they needed a reliever to take the American League East title. They got one in Houston’s Larry Andersen, who pitched effectively in 15 outings that lasted 22 innings. The cost for those 22 innings: prospect Jeff Bagwell, who never played a game for the Red Sox but went on to hit 449 homers for the Astros and likely will make the Hall of Fame next year.
There are so many more. Atlanta sent starting pitcher Doyle Alexander to Detroit in 1987, when he went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA down the stretch in helping the Tigers to the AL East title— a success. But the cost of that division title: prospect John Smoltz, who will go into the Hall of Fame this summer.
So A’s fans must cringe when they see Russell learning to play second base at the major league level— and occasionally doing so with spectacular results. In the Cubs’ 2-1 win over the Nationals on Thursday night, he ranged well up the middle to rob a hit. He looks comfortable in his new surroundings, even as he’s learning a new position and a new franchise on the fly.
“I don’t think anyone’s really comfortable with getting traded,” Russell said. “You have to basically uproot everything. You have to uproot how you think, a new team and a new city. That takes a lot of focus.”
At the time, Russell was just 20, and it was all unsettling. He spoke with Cubs executives, who made it clear they were excited to have him. He also talked with his manager for Oakland’s Class AA affiliate, Aaron Nieckula.
“He said, ‘Just take it as an opportunity. They want you and they got you. It’s an opportunity for you to do great things on a great ballclub,’ ” Russell said. “That’s what I did. I’m having so much fun.”
Oakland’s 2014 season could be remembered for the Athletics returning to the playoffs for the third straight year. But once there, the A’s lost to Kansas City in the wild-card game. Hammel, who went 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA for the A’s, returned to the Cubs as a free agent over the winter. Oakland traded Samardzija, who went 5-6 with a 3.14 ERA after the deal, to the Chicago White Sox for a package that included 24-year-old short stop Marcus Semien — essentially Russell’s replacement. Semien entered the weekend with 19 errors — six more than anyone else in baseball.
More likely, for the fans, Oakland’s 2014 season will be remembered for the deal that brought Hammel and Samardzija for a shortstop prospect they had never seen play. With the trade deadline coming, prepare for the deals — and the potential for pain.
The Athletics could end up regretting that they dealt Addison Russell, now a potential star infielder with the Cubs, last July in a bid to win immediately.