The Kansas City Royals are in the playoffs for the first time in three decades. The Oakland Athletics are in too, avoiding a collapse that would've had Bay Area fans bashing Billy Beane for three decades.
The two squads play in tonight's single-elimination Wild Card game to settle the season-long score, a dreadfully small but thrilling sample size. Both teams start their aces, Oakland's Jon Lester and Kansas City's James Shields, in the frenzied, 27-out scramble to the division series. With just nine innings worth of outs standing between elimination and a full-fledged, five-game series, we take a look at the trades that brought this pair of aces to the Wild Card game.
In a strong-armed move to pounce on the pennant, A's GM Billy Beane acquired Lester from Boston at the trade deadline. Pitching wins championships, says, well, everyone, so Beane snatched Lester from the Red Sox in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes, the team's cleanup hitter and a viable home run threat. The move was certainly brash, swapping one of Oakland's brightest young players for a three-month rental, but most lauded Beane's willingness to punch the playoff gas.
Since his arrival in Oakland (along with Jonny Gomes), Lester has done what you'd expect: a 2.35 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and 1.07 WHIP in 76 innings. Although Lester's quarter-season uniform change has been a success, it also predicated Oakland's near disastrous offensive swoon. With Cespedes gone, the A's haven't hit the broadside of the bay -- hitting a meek .233 since the All-Star break, and slugging just .316 (!) in September -- a downright offensive offensive output that's caused them to lose 30 of their last 45 games. Cespedes is gone, a prized corner of the Red Sox blossoming outfield (they'll probably go worst to first again next year), and tonight could be Lester's last time in those Oakland white cleats (if the A's lose, it certainly will be). Can you judge a trade based on nine innings? You sure can tonight. If a Lester gem puts Oakland into the divisional series, Billy Beane's brave swap will be lauded.
In the offseason of 2012, Wil Myers was one of the best prospects in baseball. The catcher-turned-outfielder had crazy power. Myers was a can't-miss home run hitter, the surest thing in the minor leagues. And Royals GM Dayton Moore traded him.
Moore figured, like Beane, that pitching wins championships. And he figured, unlike literally everyone else, that the Royals were close to competing for one of those championships. And so he sent Myers to Tampa Bay, and received starter James Shields (and Wade Davis) in return. Shields had long teamed with David Price to form the AL East's most formidable duo of arms. But he was 31, in the not-quite-an-ace no-mans-land, and the in-his-prime anchor of a Royals team whose prime was nowhere to be found.
Unlike with the Lester trade, the Shields-Myers swap won't be judged by tonight's result. The Royals were more ready for contention than anyone thought; Shields more dominant; Myers more raw. Shields has posted numbers befitting an ace (3.18 ERA and 3.53 FIP in his two KC seasons, plus a 4.09 K/BB ratio that's his best since 2007), and Davis (an ERA of 1.00 in 72 [!] innings, and 13.6 K/9) has been historically good.
The Royals won the Myers trade. Now they just have to win the game.