When trades bring re­morse

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com

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.

JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES

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.

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