Right around this time one year ago, trade talks started to heat up for Jeff Samardzija. Quite uncharacteristically, the Oakland A’s, known for their patience with prospects and not making a big splash on big named stars, went all-in and pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal.
The As would acquire two veteran pitchers to anchor their rotation that had them in first place when the trade was finalized on July 5 of last year. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel would head to the bay, while the As would have to send two of their elite prospects to the Chicago Cubs, a team that had been dwelling in mediocracy as they slowly rebuilt their system.
The As, of course, would fall apart after that trade, going from three and a half up with a 54-33 record to second place ten games back at 88-74. They would lose their one game playoff to the Royals, and their big trade was all for naught.
A year later the trade has seemed to changed the landscape for both teams. The Oakland As are in dead last in the American League West. Jeff Samardzija — who the As had to give up their shortstop of the future for — was traded to the Chicago White Sox for their current shortstop Mark Semien, who leads the Major Leagues with 22 errors. Jason Hammel is back with the Cubs after re-signing this offseason as a free agent.
Those same Chicago Cubs that have finished dead last in the NL Central every season for five years made one of the steals of the new millennium that July day. They are reaping the benefits at the big league level this year, which has them sitting at 38-30 and very much in the Wild Card race. They are doing it on the shoulders of some of the best prospects in baseball.
Addison Russell was one of those prospects. The 21-year old former shortstop was the Oakland As 11th overall draft pick in 2012 and quickly became their No. 1 rated prospect. Some originally questioned why Russell was the centerpiece of the Samardzija/Hammel deal with 25-year old All Star shortstop Starlin Castro already established. This season has shown why.
Russell’s elite defensive athleticism has allowed him to shift to a new position in second base that he had played only five career games at prior to his big league promotion. While the learning curve has had some minor bumps, overall, Russell is seamlessly sliding in comfortably to his new position committing just eight errors in his first 240 chances.
Russell’s bat was always big for a middle infielder and he had always shown an ability to make solid contact and get on base as evidenced by his .301/.377/.520 slash line over his four seasons in the Minor Leagues. He has already connected for five home runs and while his plate discipline has not quite translated thus far from his Minor League numbers, he has been far from terrible.
The real steal in the trade however may be Billy McKinney. Although he is still in Double-A, his current hot streak shows that like many of the other Cubs elite prospects, a 2015 debut may not be entirely out of the question. At the very least, McKinney gives them options for the future.
McKinney was the other first round draft pick the As sent over in that infamous deal. Minor League Ball’s own John Sickels had McKinney slotted as the Cubs eighth best prospect heading into 2015. He can arguably now be in their top five. He was described as an above average prospect (earning a grade of B in December) that "does not stand out for his physical tools, but scouts loved him in high school anyway due to his baseball instincts, hitting aptitude, and work ethic." He has certainly shown that this season.
Known for a polished swing and a good control with the strike zone and bat speed, McKinney has excelled at two levels this season. The 20-year old was slashing .340/.432/.544 for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, but after earning his first career Player of the Week Award in the Carolina League, McKinney was promoted to Double-A.
It looked like the Cubs had moved a bit too fast with McKinney, but then, that work ethic and hitting aptitude clicked. Stuck in a 1-for-20 slump, McKinney broke out this past week. He went 10-for-16 (.625 batting average) over his last six games with four extra base hits, five runs scored and six RBI. McKinney showed that plate discipline he has become known for as well, walking three times and striking out just once.
McKinney, who was drafted as a centerfielder, has already shifted to right field. With Chris Denofria filling in admirably for the injured Jorge Soler in right field in Chicago, there is no reason to rush McKinney. As long as he continues to defy skeptics and succeed in both his transformation to a right fielder and at the plate, the Chicago Cubs certainly struck gold in their take from the Oakland As.