Though owners of the best record in the major leagues, the A’s have not managed to shake off the dogged Los Angeles Angels, who trailed them by 21/2 games in the American League West as the non-waiver trade deadline dawned Thursday.
So with one eye firmly on their pursuers, the A’s and general manager Billy Beane made one of the day’s biggest splashes, sending slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in exchange for prized starting pitcher Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes. In another deal, the A’s traded pitcher Tommy Milone to Minnesota for versatile outfielder Sam Fuld.
The A’s also sent their 2015 competitive balance draft pick to the Red Sox, who included cash considerations in return. With the move, the A’s parted ways with one of baseball’s most exciting talents but acquired a front-line starter to bolster a rotation that looks to be among the strongest in the majors.
“He’s one of the best at his position and he’s a legitimate No. 1 starter. He’s proven that,” Beane said of Lester on a conference call late Thursday. “Those guys are hard to come by at any time, and we just didn’t want to pass that up.”
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Lester, the 30-year-old left-hander from Tacoma, Wash., was 10-7 for the last-place Red Sox this season but with a 2.52 ERA and 149 strikeouts in 143 innings. He has a strong track record, owning the second-best career winning percentage among active American League pitchers (.636), and is a three-time All-Star.
The A’s announced Lester will make his Oakland debut on Saturday against Kansas City. Ironically, that’s the game at which the A’s had planned to hand out 10,000 “La Potencia” T-shirts featuring Cespedes’ image. The A’s said Thursday they will still distribute the shirts.
“I’m our marketing department’s worst nightmare,” Beane said.
The addition of Lester gives the A’s a formidable starting rotation that also includes Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija and either Jason Hammel or Jesse Chavez. Beane said the A’s will disclose today who will stay as the fifth starter. As of Thursday, Kazmir, Gray and Lester all ranked in the top seven among A.L. starters in ERA.
It comes at the expense of one of the A’s key middle-of-the-order hitters the past three years. The A’s were 228-131 with Cespedes in the starting lineup since he arrived with Oakland in 2012, and Cespedes gained national notoriety for his power – he’s won the Home Run Derby the past two years – and rocket arm – he has 12 outfield assists this year and one throw home in Anaheim in June was a mainstay on highlight reels.
After a tantalizing rookie season in which Cespedes hit .292 with 23 homers and 82 RBIs in 2012, though, the Cuban defector batted .240 last season and was hitting .256 this year with 17 homers and 67 RBIs in his first 101 games. The 28-year-old was in the third year of a four-year contract through 2015, at which point he would become a free agent.
“It is difficult,” Beane said of trading Cespedes. “But if you’re going to separate yourself from everybody else to try to get a player like Lester, you have to do something unique.”
The deal was widely considered a stunner when news of it broke Thursday morning, and intrigue levels spiked in the afternoon when Detroit completed a trade for ace left-hander David Price from Tampa Bay. The A’s and Tigers have met in the A.L. Division Series in each of the past two years, with the Tigers winning both series in five games, and when Beane dealt for Samardzija and Hammel earlier this month, Detroit’s Justin Verlander reportedly said he thought Beane had acted with the Tigers in mind.
Lester has been very good in postseason play over his career, compiling a 1.97 ERA, but Beane denied looking toward October – or the Tigers – with this move.
“We’ve got a lot of work trying to win this division,” Beane said. “So first and foremost in acquiring him (Lester) was to try to win the division.”
Gomes, the 33-year-old Petaluma native, played for the A’s in 2012, when he was a key clubhouse figure on the A’s first playoff team in six years. With Cespedes gone, Gomes will likely form a platoon in left field with left-handed-hitting Stephen Vogt. Gomes was batting .234 this season with six homers and 32 RBIs in 78 games with Boston.
“Jonny’s personality was a part of this,” Beane said. “Yoenis was … a very popular guy, part of the fabric for a couple years. And so having a guy like Jonny who … has great leadership qualities, very popular, knows his role, has been here, that was a critical part of this deal for us.”
Acquiring Fuld, meanwhile, addresses an immediate need in center field, as Craig Gentry will likely miss several more weeks with a broken hand and Coco Crisp battles an ailing neck. Fuld was with the A’s in spring training and played seven games in Oakland earlier this season, making an impression on teammates and manager Bob Melvin with his hustle and defense.
Milone, the 27-year-old left-hander, had recently asked to be traded while stuck at Triple-A Sacramento because of the A’s pitching depth. He was 6-3 with a 3.55 ERA for the A’s.
Lester, Gomes and Fuld are all expected to be in Oakland today, at which point the A’s will have to clear one more spot on their 25-man roster. On Thursday, they optioned Billy Burns to the River Cats and designated infielder Jake Elmore for assignment to clear spots on the 25-man and 40-man rosters, respectively.