The A's and Tigers, it seemed, were destined to win their divisions and destined to ride their elite rotations to the best records in the league and another October showdown.
Well, this is what baseball does with assumptions. Over the weekend, the Athletics lost sole possession of the AL West's top spot for the first time since April 27. And the Tigers have not only fallen into second place in the AL Central, but they woke up Monday a half-game back of the Mariners in the pursuit of the second AL Wild Card spot.
Both teams have plenty of time and talent to recover, of course, so let's not retreat to those panic rooms just yet, A's and Tigers fans.
But we should at least acknowledge that when you give up Major League talent for Major League talent, you're taking a legitimate risk in today's parity-propelled climate.
To get Lester from Boston, Oakland gave up its starting left fielder in Yoenis Cespedes. To get Price from Tampa Bay, Detroit gave up its starting center fielder in Austin Jackson (who went to Seattle in the three-team deal), as well as Drew Smyly, who could have proved to be a valuable left-handed 'pen piece come October.
These subtractions were easy to gloss over at the time of the trades, because pitching, we're so often told, is what wins championships, and the A's and Tigers had arranged alignments that conjured up memories of some of the all-time great starting staffs.
But there's no glossing over the offensive impact of these particular absences.
Since they made the Lester trade, the Athletics have gotten just a .344 slugging percentage overall out of their lineup, including a particularly paltry .237 mark out of their starting left fielders (Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes and Sam Fuld).
While Cespedes has generally struggled to get on base in Boston, his few hits have been meaningful ones. He has three homers, a double and a triple in 59 at-bats for a .441 slugging percentage, similar to his .464 mark while with Oakland.
For the A's, a team-wide power outage has been the biggest culprit in an August skid that has seen them go 7-10 with just 3.65 runs per game (after averaging 5.0 runs per game in the season's first four months). The resurgence of the Joshes -- Reddick (.293/.328/.500 slash line) and Donaldson (.288/.403/.458) -- this month has been helpful, but it's been offset by the sagging bats of Derek Norris (.191/.224/.319), Coco Crisp (.130/.226/.196) and Moss (.205/.375/.250), as well as Deadline acquisitions Gomes (.211/.304/.211) and Fuld (.255/.296/.294). Crisp's neck issues and the diminished pop in left have compromised Oakland's outfield production considerably.
That's a lot for Lester, who is 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA, to make up for when he's only working every fifth day. And after Lester suffered his first loss since the trade Sunday, the Athletics went into their off-day in a dead heat with the Halos in the West.
For the Tigers, the effects of dealing Jackson, their (at the time) hot-hitting leadoff man, weren't immediately apparent. Rajai Davis slid right into the role (as well as the regular center-field starting duties), went 7-for-13 in a three-game sweep of the Rockies, and all appeared well in Motown.
In the time since, however, Detroit is 5-9, and its five-game division lead has turned into a 1 1/2-game deficit. And in that 14-game span, its leadoff hitters (primarily Davis, with a dash of Ian Kinsler and Ezequiel Carrera) are batting just .177 (11-for-62).
Granted, Jackson hasn't exactly made a seamless transition to Seattle, where he has a .242/.288/.274 slash line in 66 plate appearances, and the Tigers' issues in the immediate go well beyond the leadoff spot. Injuries to Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander have altered the rotation outlook, and Joakim Soria hit the DL to thin an already beleaguered bullpen.
Still, Detroit is averaging just 3.29 runs per game in this two-week funk, with Torii Hunter (.572), Carrera (.565), Davis (.540), Kinsler (.492) and Eugenio Suarez (.481) all contributing sub-.600 OPS marks in that span. It's not enough to make you question what the Tigers gave up to get one year and two months' worth of Price, because most execs would agree it was a worthwhile deal for Detroit. But it is enough to make you wonder if the lineup hole left by Jackson, who had a .947 second-half OPS at the time of the trade, has been bigger than anticipated.
If they had to do it over, I'm sure A's GM Billy Beane and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski would still sign up for the Lester and Price swaps, because they've both still got rotations that can power them to and through October. Detroit is about to embark upon a particularly tough stretch in which the club will play 15 of 18 on the road, including two doubleheaders. But both of these teams play at least half of their remaining games against teams with sub-.500 records.
More to the point, the A's have 10 more against the Angels and the Tigers have six more against the Royals. Those games, more than anything else, will determine their division fate.
Right now, though, it's hard not to look at the standings and be a bit amazed. Many of us saw the Price and Lester trades as a precursor to the ALCS. But both of these clubs could just as easily wind up in the Wild Card round.