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Friday, August 1, 2014

The Oakland A's and the injury side of the Lester-Céspedes trade


By on 8/01/2014 11:45:00 AM

Early on Thursday, the Oakland A's traded Yoenis Céspedes to the Boston Red Sox for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. The move gives the A's a fearsome top four of Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija and they are clearly setting up a rotation that they feel can win the World Series.

Many feel Oakland gave up too much and have left their offense lacking without significantly altering their chances of winning on the pitching side. Fangraphs' Dave Cameron wrote that it was "a splashy trade that probably won’t matter much" because of the minor impact Lester had on the A's postseason chances. Depending on how much you believe in the likes of Stephen Vogt and Derek Norris, the Oakland lineup looks a little thin without Céspedes' power - although Billy Beane supporters might counter that the 28-year-old isn't all that good at getting on base and actually has a worse wOBA this season than six A's regulars, including Vogt, Norris, Josh Donaldson and yet another catcher, John Jaso.

There might be one aspect of the deal that benefits the A's more than simply getting an ace, though.

Céspedes has certainly delivered on the power front, slugging .470 in the major leagues with over 50 extra-base hits in each of the last two seasons, despite playing no more than 135 games in either. And that's just it: Céspedes has not been all that good at staying on the field. Baseball Prospectus has no less than 22 separate injury entries listed on Céspedes' player card. The Cuban spent time on the disabled list with left hand sprains in both 2012 and 2013. Although he hasn't been on the DL this year, Céspedes has missed 8 starts and come out of several more because of injury concerns.

Lester, meanwhile, has started at least 31 games in each of the last six seasons. The only year he didn't reach 200 innings was 2011, when he was on the DL with a lat strain, and even then, he threw 191. The 30-year-old also has more than 75 innings of postseason experience, including over 25 in 2008, when he also threw more than 210 innings in the regular season. As pitchers go, Lester is almost as durable as it comes, unless you're talking about Mark Buehrle.


For a team that saw two starters, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, go down with what turned out to be season-ending UCL tears before a MLB game had even been played, durability and mitigating against injury misfortune could be a factor in decision-making. Taken in the context of the other A's starting pitchers, it can be argued that Lester's arrival benefits the team significantly in that area.

In contrast to Lester's experience of dealing with a large number of innings, Samardzija threw 200 for the first time last year. Gray got close last year; if you count his minor league innings and the postseason he had 195. He is on course to blow well by that number. Kazmir's surprising comeback has been great to watch but just three years ago, in 2011, he didn't even throw 20 innings as injuries and ineffectiveness threatened to bring a premature end to his career. BP lists eight separate DL trips on Kazmir's player card, reminding us that the lefty has had his share of injury struggles, and Kazmir has only passed 30 starts once despite making his major league debut in 2004. Jesse Chavez has already gone back to the bullpen after making 21 starts in what is really his first full-time stint in a major league rotation.

In other words, Oakland had a group of starters with little to no experience of throwing a full season's worth of innings and not much in the way of quality backup - especially with the Jason Hammel move looking worse with every start. Lester's a proven commodity who Oakland should be confident in relying on as they move in to September and beyond. Every team in baseball is unfortunately given frequent reminders of the fragility of pitchers. This move doesn't take away the risk of someone getting hurt, but it increases the A's depth to reduce the damage if it does happen, and it gives them a quality pitcher to rely on who does not have an extensive injury history. As BP's Russell Carleton has shown, previous injury is the greatest predictor of future injury and Lester does not carry the same risk as a player like Kazmir - or Céspedes.

Gomes also represents a reduction in injury risk if you go by his history. The Baseball Prospectus data indicates he hasn't missed a game through injury since 2006. Of course, he has been required to play a lot less than Céspedes has too, but the A's are not going to turn him into an everyday outfielder, and 2010's 148 games is still significantly more than the Cuban has managed in his first two seasons.

The ailing Athletics outfield includes Coco Crisp, struggling with a troubling neck injury which doesn't look like going away this season, and Craig Gentry, who has just taken his latest trip to the DL with a broken hand. Josh Reddick has also struggled a lot with injuries this season, hitting the DL twice, and even Sam Fuld, the other outfield acquisition from Thursday, has battled a concussion this year. Being able to rely on a healthy outfielder - as much as a baseball team can rely on anyone's health - might actually be pretty valuable for the A's.

So it's good to have depth, providing replacements to cover for injuries, and it's good to have players who haven't been hurt a lot in the past. The A's addressed both here, in a year when they currently have the best record in baseball and might have their best chance of winning the World Series for a while. If they didn't have Lester and ended up needing to replace one of those top three, relying on Hammel or Chavez to step in would be a lot less encouraging. They also don't have to replace Cespedes mid-game or sit him for a day or two while he shakes off his latest knock, as they have been doing so far this year. Knowing the A's, by using the likes of Gomes and Vogt in the right platoon and matchup situations, they can get some pretty useful production out of players who wouldn't provide much if simply played every day.

This isn't to say that there is no unpredictable element to injuries. Teams can't stop players from getting hit by pitches or line drives, or taking an awkward step, or getting hurt on the basepaths. Billy Beane and the A's might not have even factored in this element of the deal. They've already admitted they were planning to trade Céspedes in the offseason, so they didn't see it as giving up a year and a half of his production. Even if they did have big concerns about whether he could stay healthy for 150-plus games and perform in a postseason run too, they'd never say it. What we do know is that Oakland traded a player who has been hurt a lot for two who really haven't, and that could end up being worth something by the time they reach 162 games and beyond.



Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballProspectus.com and Fangraphs.com for the excellent resources used in this article. 

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