The one-year anniversary of what could be one of the great trades in Chicago Cubs history is approaching and the date won't be forgotten soon: July 4, 2014. Cubs President Theo Epstein was celebrating the holiday in Chicago while his team played an afternoon contest in Washington.
Then the fireworks started.
When the dust settled the Cubs had traded two-fifths of their starting staff. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel went to the Oakland Athletics for two former first-round picks, including a highly rated shortstop, Addison Russell, along with outfielder Billy McKinney and pitcher Dan Straily.
Hammel was headed for free agency and Samardzija was just a year away while pitching for a team that was going nowhere. Meanwhile, the Athletics had World Series aspirations so you could understand their desperation after suffering several injuries to their starting staff. So the Cubs moved two players who were probably leaving the team anyway for two that could be with them for a long time. And if Russell continues his career arc the Cubs might have a budding star on their hands.
Here's a look back at the deal:
After a 9-17 April record, the Cubs knew where they were heading in 2014. So did Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who checked in about Samardzija's availability, which actually had been determined a few months prior.
"We had some on-again, off-again talks about a multi-year deal but it was pretty clear by spring training that it wasn't going to work out," Epstein said. "Billy called me for the first time in early May expressing some interest in Samardzija. I told him 'We're going to do really well for him.'
"To get my attention he pointed out Addison would be in play and that some teams are hesitant to move their best (prospects) but he wouldn't mind being aggressive."
Unlike the Cubs, the A's were off to a good start and Beane's modus operandi is to go for it. Because of the economics of that market the Athletics don't sign long term deals or have five-year plans. If Beane sniffs a chance at a postseason run he's not unwilling to part with players like Russell.
There was no more movement on the deal for a while though, as Russell was coming back from a bad hamstring injury and the Cubs wanted to know he was fully healed.
After the draft in June, when trade talk starts to pick up, Epstein and Beane renewed their mutual interest in a deal as Russell's rehab was coming along.
"Beane and I re-connected sometime in mid-June and he said he wouldn't do Russell for just Samardzija. He asked if there was a way to get Samardzija without Russell? We said 'no.' Then he hinted 'You should act quickly because we're going to get someone.'"
That someone was Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price. Word in baseball was the Rays were willing to move him but they were more likely to wait until closer to the July 31 trade deadline, as they had a contending team on paper but were underachieving. Could they get back into the race? The Cubs had no such limitations. They had made early moves in the past and it had worked well for them.
With Price considered the crown jewel of available pitchers, the Cubs knew they had to sweeten the pot. That's when Hammel was added to talks. His addition was enough for Beane, though the Cubs insisted on getting Billy McKinney or Daniel Robertson, another top prospect, back plus a third player the parties "grinded over." That turned out to be Straily. Still, the Cubs weren't sure what they wanted to do.
With Starlin Castro having a rebound season at shortstop and Russell coming off that injury, there was real speculation the Cubs would flip Russell to the New York Mets for top pitching prospect in Noah Syndergaard. Those plans quickly changed though.
"We scouted Russell in his rehab in Arizona and then at Double-A and he looked really good," Epstein said. "We wanted to keep him. We loved the player. After scouting him we got a renewed sense of how good of an all-around player he could be."
Russell was a high school player the Cubs missed on in the draft in 2012, as he made his big leap from his junior to senior year in high school. He was taken 11th by the Athletics. After seeing him in instructs after the draft, Epstein knew Oakland had a special player.
Epstein knew the Rays, who were 9.5 games out of first place on the day before the trade, were becoming increasingly likely to trade Price. It was time to move on the deal, if he could.
"So those days in early July, he (Beane) was going back and forth and I think he was going back and forth on the phone with me and Andrew Friedman, kind of creating an artificial deadline," Epstein said. "The night of July 3 we were holding our breath because we knew he was going back in for Price. We were just trying to get to a 'yes.' I probably talked to Billy 20 times on July 3 and 4th."
"So I'm going off into the bushes to talk to Beane all day. We ended up getting to a 'yes' by about game time." Theo Epstein on finishing the trade while attending a Fourth of July party
Hammel was scheduled to pitch in a day game on the holiday while the two executives hammered out the deal. To complicate matters, Epstein was at a private party with his family where cell phones weren't allowed.
"So I'm going off into the bushes to talk to Beane all day," Epstein said. "We ended up getting to a 'yes' by about game time."
It was mid-game by the time the Cubs informed then-manager, Ricky Renteria. They needed to pull Hammel immediately, something the pitcher didn't take kindly too -- but he had no idea what was happening.
"I talked to him after the game and explained it," Epstein said.
After medical reports were signed off on, Epstein called Samardzija, and Beane let his players know as well. Right about the time fireworks were going off around the country the deal was official.
"Billy built an annually contending team under incredibly adverse circumstances. He had an opportunity to do the unthinkable and add Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to a team that was certainly good enough to win the whole thing," Epstein said. "I think any GM would want to be aggressive and make that deal -- Billy is just the one with the guts to do it."
On the surface it was considered a lot for Oakland to give up for two rentals but no one would have said that if the Athletics had won the World Series. They didn't. The postscript to the deal is the Cubs re-signed Hammel in the offseason and Samardzija was traded to the White Sox. Samardzija will be a free agent after this season and the Cubs could re-sign him as well. Then the trade would really come full circle for Chicago.
As is, the Cubs moved two players they weren't likely to keep at the time for a package headlined by a middle infielder who's already in the big leagues at age 21. Russell might become their shortstop in the near future and could very well become a mainstay at the All-Star Game someday. If his future matches his current talent, don't bet against it. It was a deal the Cubs could not pass up.
"It was a rare opportunity," Epstein said.