Old-Fashioned Baseball Blockbusters Reshuffle Playoff Race

The Red Sox made four major trades on July 31 that saw Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey (pictured), Andrew Miller, and Stephen Drew sent to different ball clubs.
The Red Sox made four major trades on July 31 that saw Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey (pictured), Andrew Miller, and Stephen Drew sent to different ball clubs. –Michael Dwyer / AP Photo

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The Oakland Athletics had the best record in the American League in mid-June when their catcher, Derek Norris, tried to explain their success after another victory at O.co Coliseum.

“Most importantly, there’s a lot of guys who know their roles,’’ Norris said, “and everyone has a little piece of the pie: ‘This is my role; this is my role.’ And you go all the way around, and you have a complete pie.’’

Yet Billy Beane, the team’s celebrated general manager, has baked a lot of pies like that. The last two were devoured by the Detroit Tigers in division series.

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Now Beane is trying a different concoction, acquiring one All-Star starting pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, in early July and another, Jon Lester, on Thursday.

Still, just when it seemed as if Oakland might have assembled the most dangerous rotation in baseball, the Tigers responded in a big way — with a deal for David Price.

“It doesn’t surprise me because Dave Dombrowski, he knows how to make big deals,’’ Beane said, referring to the Tigers’ general manager. “He’s been doing it for a long time. I heard some rumors last night, so I wasn’t shocked at all.’’

With the acquisition of Price, the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Tigers now have the past three AL Cy Young Award winners. Price, who won it in 2012, joins Max Scherzer (2013) and Justin Verlander (2011) in a rotation that includes the dependable Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. (In Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers have the past three winners of the AL Most Valuable Player award, too. Verlander won it in 2011, and Cabrera won it the past two years.)

A playoff rematch with the A’s, of course, is hardly preordained. The Los Angeles Angels have the second-best record in the majors, behind Oakland. The Baltimore Orioles, who lead the AL East, have a fearsome offense, a sparkling defense and a stingy bullpen. The New York Yankees keep making small improvements, and other teams are in contention.

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But it sure seems as if the Tigers and the A’s are on a collision course for a third consecutive October meeting, with a trip to the World Series the prize. For both teams’ owners, the mission is personal.

Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, is 85. Lew Wolff, who owns the Athletics, is almost 80. Neither franchise has won a championship since the 1980s. The Tigers fell flat in the World Series in 2006 and 2012, and the A’s have not played in one since 1990. Each team believes its time is now.

The Boston Red Sox acknowledged a different reality Thursday, trading Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Andrew Miller and Stephen Drew in four deals after shipping off Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront in recent days.

The Red Sox’s seasons, lately, have been exercises in extremes. In 2011, they started poorly, sizzled for four months and then fumbled away a playoff spot with a brutal September collapse. A new manager and a new general manager produced a dismal record in 2012 but last season brought the team’s third championship in a decade.

The 2014 season, officially, is now a bust. But the Red Sox added three proven major leaguers they control for next season: slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, acquired from Oakland, and outfielder Allen Craig and starter Joe Kelly, who together made up an impressive haul from St. Louis for Lackey. And because Boston sent Lester to a team that will never be able to afford to re-sign him, the Red Sox should have a chance to bring him back in free agency — if they want to pay him close to his market value.

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They may pass on a Lester reunion, trusting in data that shows the folly of nine-figure contracts for pitchers older than 30. (Lester turns 31 in January.) But three titles validate the Red Sox’s approach to roster-building, and they may not be down long.

The Rays did what they had to do to extend their window of contention. They had the best July (17-6) in baseball, nudging their record to 53-55 after a dreadful start. But Price is facing free agency after 2015, and his success has taken his value well out of the Rays’ price range.

With the addition of young left-hander Drew Smyly, part of the package they received from Seattle and Detroit in a three-way transaction, the Rays now have years of control over a respectable rotation: Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Jake Odorizzi and Smyly, with former All-Star Matt Moore due to return from Tommy John surgery next season. There may be no replacing Price, but the Rays’ immediate future is far from bleak.

For sheer star power, no AL team can match the Tigers, although their long-term future is unclear. It helps that Price gives them a spare ace for 2015, when Scherzer could be gone as a free agent. But Cabrera’s outrageous eight-year, $248 million contract extension does not even begin until 2016, and the Tigers owe Verlander $28 million for each of the next five seasons, even as he seems to be in sharp decline.

Before long, the Tigers may become the AL version of the decaying Philadelphia Phillies, whose lavish contracts for aging players have locked the organization into a state of inertia, with no apparent exit strategy.

The Phillies, somewhat inexplicably, made no moves Thursday. But at least they won a championship in 2008, even if their next may be many years away.

For the Tigers, this is the time to claim the crown. Their problem may be that the Athletics feel the same way.

Beane, for his part, insisted he was not looking past the regular season, calling the Angels a very good team and stressing the importance of winning the West to avoid a wild-card play-in game. But he joked that Price would have a minimal impact on the Tigers anyway.

“They need a left-handed reliever out of the pen,’’ Beane said, “so I’m sure David’s going to help them in that role.’’