When the Oakland Athletics executed a high-stakes trade with the Chicago Cubs in July of 2014, the potential long-term impact of the transaction wasn’t the priority. Instead, the A’s hoped to make an immediate run through the playoffs before their window shut.
Despite the urgency of the deal — which sent top-prospect Addison Russell, former first-round draft pick Billy McKinney and right-hander Dan Straily to Chicago for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel — the exchange laid the foundation for Oakland’s current roster construction.
By using Samardzija as a trade chip to obtain shortstop Marcus Semien, starting pitcher Chris Bassitt and catcher Josh Phegley from the Chicago White Sox the following offseason, the win-now strategy in 2014 has actually significantly benefitted the A’s four years later.
Between the deals, Oakland has received 13.9 bWAR of value while giving up 16.8 bWAR, a fairly even tradeoff considering how much leverage the Cubs had in the initial midseason exchange. Semien, Bassitt and Phegley have overcome various setbacks to contribute this year, tallying 3.3 bWAR for a team that had a surprising 51-41 record as of Wednesday. Their roles could expand as the season progresses.
Semien, of course, has been one of Oakland’s few constants since 2015, providing stability on a roster that until recently was stocked with placeholders. With the exception of last year, when Semien missed time with a broken hand, he’s been in the lineup almost every day for the past four seasons.
Though his sometimes-erratic defensive play has led to criticism from fans, he’s remained an affordable asset for a team with the lowest payroll in baseball. He’s made less than $5 million since coming to the A’s, and he won’t become a free agent until at least 2021.
Semien went 3-for-4 on Tuesday against the Houston Astros and delivered a game-tying two-run double in the ninth inning.
Phegley and Bassitt have had resurgent seasons to add further value to the Samardzija trades, helping offset some of Russell’s production with the Cubs.
After Phegley hit nine home runs and played above-average defense in 2015, leading to a 1.7 bWAR campaign, he battled injuries and declining hitting outputs. This season, though, he’s returned from a hand injury to flash the same promise he offered in his first season with the organization.
“We’ve always liked Phegley,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s not easy to do the role that he does, catching once a week or just coming in against left-handed pitching. He throws really well, he blocks the ball really well. … He should be as confident as he’s been since he’s become a part of the team.”
Phegley could gain playing time if starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy continues his recent slump. While Lucroy has been widely praised for his mentorship of a young pitching staff ravaged by injuries, he’s hit just one home run and is having his worst-ever season by almost every metric. He’s also been below average at throwing out potential base stealers. On Tuesday against the Astros, Lucroy misplayed a dribbler in front of home, resulting in a walk-off loss.
As a veteran with a track record as one of the better catchers in baseball, Lucroy will likely have plenty more opportunities to stabilize his game. If he falters, though, Phegley at some point might benefit.
Bassitt, meanwhile, missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and didn’t know whether he would ever pitch at an MLB level again. He’s cracked the A’s rotation this year, filling in well after Andrew Triggs, Trevor Cahill and Daniel Mengden (among others) others went down.
“Based on the injuries that we’ve had, you know it’s amazing that we’re getting the contributions that we are,” Melvin said. ”Who would have thought Chris Bassitt would be here pitching for us?”
There were A’s fans initially upset by the departure of Russell, at the time a generational prospect, who has since become a solid big league shortstop. But his move paved the way for three roster mainstays to come to Oakland, which has been important in the clubhouse as well as on the field.
“We had a lot of guys from our system that are here now,” Melvin said. “It’s a little bit more of a group feeling than when having to have placeholders here for a year looking for the next contract. It just feels like a real insulated, tight group.”