MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

A's optimistic about prospects acquired in Samardzija trade

Quartet of youngsters could validate Beane's acumen once again

A's optimistic about prospects acquired in Samardzija trade

MESA, Ariz. -- Do Billy Beane and the A's still have the magic touch?

It sure didn't look like it last October when they paid heavily to add Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the stretch run and postseason and then failed to hold a four-run eighth-inning lead over the Royals in the Wild Card game.

But don't count out their annual sorcery before the real games even begin. They certainly got Spring Training off to a good note Tuesday, with new shortstop Marcus Semien hitting two homers (the first one off Madison Bumgarner) in a 9-4 victory over the Giants.

Beane needs to hit his own home run with Semien or another of three players acquired from the White Sox for Samardzija, not that he sweats what anyone thinks about his bold, often provocative, roster maneuvering.

When the A's loaded up on pitchers last summer, they knew they weren't going to keep Lester and Hammel beyond 2014, as they were due to hit the free-agent market. But it's their handling of Samardzija that is the most intriguing.

If they can come out of their two Samardzija trades relatively intact -- if not ahead -- then they will have done it again, constructing a highly competitive roster on a budget.

Between them, Samardzija and Hammel were 10-12 with a 2.91 ERA in 34 combined starts for the Cubs last season. To get both of them in the same deal would figure to be a coup, except that they paid Theo Epstein a heavy price to get them.

Shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney were both first-round draft choices. MLB.com ranks Russell as the fifth best prospect overall, just a tick behind the widely celebrated Kris Bryant, and McKinney enters the season ranked 83rd by Baseball America. It seemed surprising that the A's would give up both of them for Samardzija and Hammel, who went 7-12 with a .314 ERA after the trade last season, especially when the window closed quickly on Samardzija in Oakland.

Beane and his long-time assistant David Forst signed off on a trade that sent Samardzija to the White Sox at the Winter Meetings, with the deal returning four prospects, none of whom are considered on the level of Russell and McKinney by experts like MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis. But the A's believe that Semien, right-hander Chris Bassitt, catcher Josh Phegley and first baseman Rangel Ravelo could all be headed toward productive Major League careers.

The A's have frequently used a strength-in-numbers approach, but rarely more often than this winter. In total, Beane and Forst acquired 27 players in nine trades during the Hot Stove season.

There were other interesting deals, for sure, including one that brought Ben Zobrist from Tampa Bay, the shocker that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto and another that delivered Brandon Moss to Cleveland. But the two Samardzija trades stand out because of the high-end talent that was involved, going both directions.

"Look, both of those deals are difficult,'' Forst said. "You never like trading a guy like Addison, but Jeff and Jason filled a particular need for us at that time. Then to turn around and lose Jason and feel like trading Jeff is the best option is never an easy decision to make. Jeff is a guy who has his best years ahead of him still. He's right at the age you want to get a pitcher. He knows his game. His stuff is without question. It was not an easy decision to make. It was part of the balancing act we are forced to make.''

Things are never equal for the A's and their competition in the AL West, and that's the way it is going to be until they get the new stadium they've sought for at least a decade. They opened 2014 with a team-record payroll of $82.3 million on Opening Day and figure to be about there again this season. Contrast that to the Angels, Rangers and Mariners, whose payrolls will range from about $123 million (Mariners) to $145 million (Angels) this year.

That's quite a disadvantage, yet somehow Beane and manager Bob Melvin have guided the A's to three consecutive postseason spots. The franchise qualified to play in October eight times in the last 15 years, under three different managers.

One of the secrets is that Oakland is baseball's land of opportunity. Phegley, who hit .207 in 76 games as a White Sox backup, says he feels energized by having been acquired by an organization known for its shrewd pickups through the years. He says he hopes the A's will tap into "some hidden talent'' and allow him to jump-start a career that was stalled entering his age-27 season.

Melvin has seen that happen over and over.

"Younger players, I think, have the expectation here that they're going to get an opportunity,'' he said Tuesday. "That's the way it's been here. We embrace young players. We give them opportunity. Look at a guy like Sonny Gray. In his first year, he's pitching Game 5 of the League Championship Series. There's an understanding of that around the league, that when guys come here they're able to be themselves, not that they aren't somewhere else. I think it makes them a little bit more comfortable, maybe easing the transition when they're going out and doing their thing. They know they have a chance to win a job here.''

Few camps have as much competition for jobs this spring as Oakland's. But it's possible Bassitt could win one of three openings in the rotation and Phegley earns the backup job to catcher Stephen Vogt while Semien hangs onto his position as Jed Lowrie's replacement at shortstop.

Phegley started the Cactus League opener, going 0-for-2 at the plate. Bassitt was one of the pitchers opening eyes in bullpen sessions the first two weeks of camp.

"We've seen him as a guy who hitters have had a tough time getting good swings off of,'' Melvin said. "He's got good movement [on his two-seam fastball], got some deception in his windup, got good downhill arc with his arm slot. We're excited about him. He has trouble throwing [his sinker] straight. Talented guy with big upside.''

While none of the four players the White Sox sent to Oakland were highly ranked, those rankings don't matter once players step on the field. Then it's about producing. Would you be surprised if it turned out that Semien or Bassitt -- if not Semien and Bassitt [or Phegley and Ravelo, for that matter] were steals for the A's?

With Beane in charge, teams have done business with Oakland at their own risk. It's going to be really interesting to see how the two Samardzija deals work out.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.