By Ross Newhan
With the two best records in the American League entering play Saturday, and a third West Division team, Seattle, tied for the fourth best, both Oakland and the Angels have been doing more than watching fireworks on the holiday weekend.
The A's--operating from what General Manager Billy Beane has always maintained is a narrow financial window (''there are no five year plans in Oakland," he is fond of saying)--produced their own fireworks with the blockbuster trade with the Chicago Cubs, landing two starting pitchers for top prospects.
The Angels snuck in at a less explosive level, sending two lower level prospects to Arizona for a veteran left handed reliever, Joe Thatcher, in an ongoing attempt (following the acquisition of Jason Grilli and departure of Ernesto Frieri) to stabilize their bullpen.
The A's transaction, in particular, set the stage for what might be a wild month ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and underscored Beane's belief that his team has to go for it when the opportunity is there. The A's have reached the playoffs seven times in his 16 years as GM but never the World Series, and the trade with Chicago represents another defining juncture for two teams at distinctly different places on the competitive road.
Already boasting the AL's best rotation ERA, the A's acquired starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who boast the 10th and 15th ranked ERAs in the National League and who significantly improve Oakland's depth. Hammel can become a free agent at the end of the current season while Samardzija can leave at the end of the 2015 season, but this is now and that is then, and there was concern in Oakland about the club's ability to hold off the Angels with a rotation led by right hander Sonny Gray, in his first full major league season, and lefty Scott Kazmir, who hasn't pitched more than 158 innings in a season since 2007.
The center piece of the trade from the Cubs standpoint was 20 year old shortstop Addison Russell, who was the A's top draft pick two years ago and was perceived to be Oakland's potential shortstop as soon as next year if Jed Lowrie leaves as a free agent at the end of the current year. Again, however, that is then and this is now, and prospects are prospects until they are something more. Beane has never backed away from trading prospects, having now traded five of his last nine top picks, including outfielder Billy McKinney, who was the 24th overall selection in the 2013 draft and who was sent to the Cubs with the very highly touted Russell.
How the latter fits into the Cubs long range shortstop picture isn't clear considering incumbent Starlin Castro, 24, is signed for five years and $44 million after this season, and Javier Baez, another highly regarded prospect at 21, is in the wings. Nevertheless, as a scout for an American League team told me in regard to Russell, "if this kid doesn't become a big league star I don't know my business."
The Angels, by contrast, added an important bullpen piece in southpaw Thatcher, who had a 2.63 ERA for Arizona in 37 appearances, primarily at the expense of outfielder Zach Borenstein, who was their 2013 Minor League Player of the Year but only their ninth rated prospect according to Baseball America.
It isn't clear if General Manager Jerry DiPoto is done working on the bullpen, or done improving his pitching overall, but this much does seem clear:
Between the A's, Angels and swiftly improving Mariners, the West has become the AL's strongest division--maybe MLB's strongest--and it's conceivable that all of those three will have more to say before the trade deadline as they set the stage for a furious second half in which the division title is the obvious prize.
No wants to face the heat and uncertainty of a one game wild card play-in.