All In: How Oakland Folded Down The Stretch

In the aftermath of one of the best baseball games of this century, the defeated Oakland Athletics are back to the drawing board. Everything they had built over the last three years was leading up to one moment — the 2014 postseason — and the premium they paid for two starting pitchers this July — Jeff Samardjiza and Jon Lester — were for the soul purpose of improving on their odds of winning once they made it there.

Carrying a 7-3 lead into the 7th inning of last night’s tilt with Kansas City, Oakland’s win expectancy was a commanding 97.1% stranglehold, but, then, this happened.

The odds of coming back to win with just a 2.9% WE obviously aren’t good, especially in this era of dominant pitching — and more specifically, dominant relief pitching — but the Royals were up to the challenge. They pieced together a few timely singles, stole a ton of bases, and never died. In playoff baseball, all you need is bullets left in the chamber to keep things interesting.

So, the Royals won. They’ll head to Anaheim to face the team with the best record in baseball in 2014, and will be a significant underdog to advance to the ALCS. The Athletics, meanwhile, find themselves in a precarious position. They went from having the best record in baseball on August 12th — 73-46 — and a four-game lead on the American League West, to finishing the season just 88-74 and bounced in the one-game wild card playoff.

Maybe they don’t feel as stupid this morning as I feel stupid for writing that sentence, but they nonetheless have some shit to figure out.

A lot is being made, both last night during the game and today now that they’ve lost, about how trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox was the reason why the offense sputtered down the stretch and why Oakland went into the tank as the season progressed. It tells a convenient narrative, sure, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. First, Cespedes hit only .256/.303/.464 (116 wRC+) with the A’s in 2014, and if he he’d produced the .269/.296/.423 (96 wRC+) triple slash line after being traded to the Red Sox, Oakland wouldn’t have been in the wild card game to begin with.

The results didn’t bear it out, but the A’s got better when they acquired Jon Lester for Cespedes. Lester acquitted himself very well with a 2.35 ERA (3.27 xFIP) (3.26 SIERA) in 76.2 IP with Oakland. It wasn’t his fault.

The more damning of the July trades came when they gave up one of the best prospects in baseball, shortstop Addison Russell, in the deal to get Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. (They also gave up their #2 prospect, per Keith Law, outfielder Brian McKinney.) This move essentially bankrupt what was already a weak farm system, and will be the move they regret moving forward, especially knowing what we know now, that the A’s aren’t even in the eight-team playoff field.

Samardzija, like Lester, pitched well with the A’s. In 111.2 IP his ERA was 3.14 (2.96 xFIP) (2.92 SIERA), so it’s not as if his presence — or 5-6 record — was cause for their collapse. The trouble, which was the heavy risk the A’s front office absorbed when they made the trade, was that they put all their eggs 2014’s basket to win it all. If they didn’t, which they didn’t, it’s easy to second guess their decision to mortgage the future. The problem compounds itself exponentially since they didn’t even make it out of the wild card game.

Lester is a free agent this winter, and since he didn’t play a full season with Oakland they will not receive a first round pick as compensation in return. It’s a given they don’t have the money to retain him, so he’s gone.

Samardzija, however, isn’t a free agent until after next year, meaning Billy Beane has a decision to make. He can either trade him this offseason to help restore Oakland’s weak farm system, pay whatever Jeff’s rate will be during the arbitration process and perhaps trade him next July, or go for it all again in 2015 and receive a first round pick once he signs elsewhere in free agency next offseason.

Knowing Beane’s tendencies, it wouldn’t make very much sense that he’d trade Samardzija next July. The prospect return would be greater for one full year than two months. But if Billy Beane expects the A’s to compete next year — and we have no reason to assume the A’s won’t be good, not with a potential rotation featuring Samardzija, Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir — then he’ll pocket his pitcher.

Though, given the expected return of Jarrod Parker — who missed 2014 with Tommy John surgery — and an empty farm system, smart money is on Jeff Samardzija getting traded this winter.

On July 31st, when the A’s acquired Jon Lester from the Red Sox, everyone had the A’s penciled in to the American League Championship Series to play the Tigers. Now we’re here, on the first day of October, and Oakland is already bounced from the playoff field.

Baseball is weird.