Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane put together one of the best rotations in baseball this year, and he was rewarded with scorn from his team's fan base and yet another early exit from the postseason.
You couldn't blame Beane if he threw up his hands and wondered what more he could possibly do. The ace of his staff, Jon Lester, started Tuesday night's do-or-die game, and the lineup, supposedly weakened by the loss of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, scored eight runs. That combination generally yields a favorable result; not this time.
It wasn't enough, and now Beane is left with the task of putting together a similar roster without the budget to re-sign some of his key players.
How exactly will that happen? Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal already has a few theories, and he wrote about them in a column last week. The gist of the article was that Beane isn't likely to rest much after seeing his team get bounced in the first game of the postseason, and he'll have plenty of pieces to work with while negotiating trades—including third baseman Josh Donaldson and right-hander Jeff Samardzija.
To even think about dealing either of those two, Beane would have to accept that the A's aren't built to contend next season—a more viable possibility than you'd think. As Rosenthal notes, the A's will have several gaping holes, with Jed Lowrie possibly gone to free agency and Luke Gregerson, Alberto Callaspo and Geovany Soto set to join him.
Even the rotation could be questionable, at least in comparison to this year. Lester and right-hander Jason Hammel have expiring contracts, and Scott Kazmir, a pre-All-Star break Cy Young Award candidate, posted a 5.42 ERA after the break. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will return from their respective injuries, but if the A's couldn't get it done with an elite rotation, what's going to change in 2015 to give them hope with a worse pitching staff?
So, yes, if Beane believes his club will fall short in 2015 (or even for the next few seasons), he might entertain the possibility of dealing Donaldson and/or Samardzija. But in reality, will it actually happen?
The move sounds preposterous on the surface, but in reality it wouldn't be half bad.
It's possible—probable, even—that the A's will never receive a bigger return on their third baseman than they would if they shop him this offseason. The upcoming market will be severely lacking in position player talent, and Donaldson is coming off back-to-back seasons of steady production.
It could be silly to get rid of a player who will be under team control for the next several years (through at least the end of the 2018 season), but that factor would only increase Donaldson's value in a potential trade. There's also no promise that he continues to play at such a high level going forward. Donaldson showed signs of reverting to mediocrity at times this season, hitting below a .250 batting averae in three of the season's six months while seeing his wRC+ and OPS slip by 18 and 85 points, respectively, from 2013.
Obviously, Donaldson is still an elite player and one of the best third basemen in the game. But it's unclear how realistically the A's can contend next season, and if there were ever a time to move Donaldson, this offseason makes the most sense.
A much more likely scenario would involve the A's shopping Samardzija around. He would be the staff ace and one of the AL's elite pitchers next season, but that also means he'll earn a lot of money from arbitration this offseason. Plus, like Donaldson, Samardzija's value is at an all-time high.
There's also the issue of the right-hander's impending free agency, as his contract expires at the end of 2015 and he'll almost certainly be too pricey for the A's.
If Beane ever does want to consider trading Samardzija, the Cubs would seem like a logical fit. Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are a formidable pair, but the rest of the rotation is questionable at best; re-acquiring Samardzija would give the Cubs the pitching staff to do some damage in the postseason. Meanwhile, if it's possible for a team to have a surplus of prospects, the Cubs are that team—meaning they have more than enough firepower to make a deal.
The obvious limiting factor, of course, is that the Cubs could potentially sign Jon Lester this offseason, in which case they wouldn't have to give up any prospects. Even so, Oakland's success depends upon Beane making savvy moves to acquire future talent in exchange for proven players (like Samardzija), and while it's pure speculation at this point, the Cubs would surely love to have their former ace back in Chicago.
Here's the thing: It's unlikely at best that Beane trades Donaldson or Samardzija. You simply don't deal elite position players with several years of team control left, no matter how logical the move would be. If anything, Samardzija could be dealt to a contender near the non-waiver deadline next season if the A's find themselves out of the playoff race by then. But for now, it makes little sense for Beane to concede Oakland's season before it even starts.