CHICAGO -- About a month ago, Athletics vice president and general manager Billy Beane talked to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein about starter Jeff Samardzija. Beane wanted to make sure if Epstein was going to trade the right-hander that he'd call Oakland.
Epstein has been in rebuild mode since joining the Cubs in October 2011, and he dealt two starting pitchers in '12, and again last year. The focus has been on adding young pitching and impact talent. But Epstein and Beane had a tough time finding a combination of players that fit each other's check lists. Beane wanted a way to expand the deal and get more back, and the Cubs were focused on one player who they felt was better than any pitcher offered in exchange.
On Friday, the Cubs acquired a player who now makes the "core four" the "fab five."
"There was no pitcher available who was even close to the caliber of player that Addison Russell is," Epstein said of the shortstop, ranked No. 11 on MLB.com's list of No. 11 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, who is now a Cub.
Once again, Epstein dealt two starting pitchers, packaging Samardzija with Jason Hammel, and sending both to the A's for three Minor Leaguers -- Russell, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily and outfielder Billy McKinney. The Cubs will also receive a player to be named later.
Down on the farm
|Albert Almora||14||Class A Advanced|
|Jorge Soler||41||Arizona Rookie League|
"We certainly hope this is the last year we'll be obvious sellers at the Trade Deadline," Epstein said Saturday. "Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team's chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series."
The Athletics began play Saturday 3 1/2 games up in the American League West, while the Cubs are 18-12 since June 3 but also last in the National League Central, and they will likely finish with a losing record for the third straight season since Epstein took over. Despite the solid play recently, including a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Red Sox, Epstein said the Cubs had to be realistic.
If the club were to make a trade this year, Epstein said they needed to get a player who "significantly impacts the organization and helps make our future a heck of a lot better." Russell, who was the A's No. 1 pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, is that type of player, Epstein said.
The Cubs now have eight of the top 100 prospects on MLB.com's list, and four of the top 15 in Javier Baez (No. 6), Kris Bryant (No. 8), Russell (No. 11) and Albert Almora (No. 15).
Epstein can't wait for the day when those four -- plus Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and another top prospect, Arismendy Alcantara -- are all in the same lineup at Wrigley Field. Of course, there are no guarantees regarding the players, and Epstein acknowledges that.
"These are real prospects," he said. "Not all of them work out, but we like these players quite a bit, and they have a chance to play together for all time at Wrigley Field. When you put that together with a couple of 24-year-old All-Star-caliber performers like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, you can't be [anything] but excited about our future."
The Cubs wanted Samardzija to be part of that future, too, and had discussed a contract extension. However, the right-hander, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, was looking for market value, which the Cubs couldn't offer.
"It's fair to say we were close, just because there was mutual interest," Epstein said. "We've always admired Jeff and the way he goes about his business, his talent, his work ethic, what he means in that clubhouse, his competitiveness. He's somebody we thought about possibly starting playoff games at Wrigley Field.
"We did have a desire to keep him," Epstein said. "I think Jeff loved the Cubs and the fans and loved the city and wanted to be here. In the end, that mutual interest wasn't enough. I don't blame that on anybody. I think the timing wasn't necessarily aligned."
Samardzija was to have started Saturday for the Cubs but will make his debut for the Athletics on Sunday. Hammel started Friday against the Nationals and was pulled after 92 pitches. He complained after the game about the early exit, but he was unaware of the dealings until Epstein explained it on the phone.
"I told him, 'Jason, you're 100 percent right,'" said Epstein, who also added that the team was close to a trade and had asked manager Rick Renteria to "be smart about things."
Hammel, who signed a one-year contract with the Cubs and knew very well he would possibly be flipped by the Trade Deadline, understood, especially when Epstein then told the pitcher to stay near his phone.
Hammel, whose wife is expecting their second child, will join the A's on Sunday.
Attendance is down this season at Wrigley Field, and fans will now see more young players in the lineup. Chris Rusin was promoted from Triple-A Iowa on Saturday and was available to pitch. Expect more moves.
"I really feel there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Epstein said. "We appreciate our fans' patience and we're working extremely hard to reward them with a team they can be proud of for a long time at Wrigley Field. This group has a chance to stay together and our fans have a chance to get to know them, and not just for one or two years."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.