Billy Beane

Scott Kazmir dealt within division – What is Billy Beane thinking?

Leave it up to Billy Beane to fire the first big shot (and display a large white flag with the words “2015 SEASON” in green and gold) before the non-waiver trade deadline, and the move is a rather surprising one. Not because he dealt Scott Kazmir — everyone knew he was on borrowed time in Oakland — but where and for whom.

Kazmir, who’s enjoying his best year since 2007 (2.38 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 1.09 WHIP, 101 strikeouts in 109 2/3 innings), is going to the Astros for two prospects, 22-year-old RHP Daniel Mengden and 20-year-old C Jacob Nottingham. This is not an overwhelming haul for Kazmir. Our A’s columnist, Rick Tittle, wasn’t pleased.

Neither Mengden nor Nottingham cracked John Sickels’ “Houston Astros Top 20 Prospects for 2015” list. He listed Mengden as a “C+” prospect and didn’t mention Nottingham.

So what gives? Why would Beane deal Kamir to the second place team in the A’s division, over a week before the deadline, for two prospects who weren’t on anybody’s radar?

1. The A’s like these prospects based on what they’ve done this year.

Keith Law didn’t have either player in his top-10, although he mentioned Mengden as a possible sleeper.

Daniel Mengden (15), their fourth-round pick in 2014, pitched most of the spring with a stress fracture in his back (from spondylolysis) but should be fully healed for the spring. He pitched a little bit in their system after some time off to let his back recover, working from 92-94 mph with an above-average change and breaking ball in short stints.

Mengden, drafted in the fourth round in 2014 out of Texas A&M, has an ERA of 3.46 this year, which has been split between Quad Cities (A-Ball) and Lancaster (Cal League, which is considered high-level A-Ball). He did much better at Quad Cities (1.16 ERA) than he has so far in Lancaster (5.26), but if his fastball is in the low 90s and he has that changeup, the A’s might see a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter down the road.

Knottingham, a sixth-rounder in 2013 out of Redlands High, has played for the same teams as Mengden this year and mashed at both locales, hitting a combined .326/.383/.558 in 2015 with 14 homers.

Here’s Beane’s public explanation, via Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee:

It was the Astros’ willingness to part with Nottingham, Beane said, that expedited a deal getting done. Nottingham, 20, was batting a combined .326 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs in 76 games in A-ball this season. Beane said the A’s seen him as “potentially a middle-of-the-order hitter, and that’s pretty unusual” for a catcher.

“We actually sent a few of our different scouts out to watch some of (the Astros’) system and this kid really stood out for us,” Beane said.

Megnden, meanwhile, had a combined 6-2 record and 3.46 ERA in 18 games, 14 starts, at two levels of A-ball. Beane said Mengden, 22, is “a guy we liked out of the draft. Right now he’s pitching in a tough pitchers’ park in Lancaster, but a guy we think has a chance to pitch in the rotation down the road.”

2. Beane has an inkling that Kazmir might be damaged goods.

Why else would he deal Kazmir to a division “rival”? Why didn’t any better offers come Beane’s way? Why not just keep Kazmir this season and tender a qualifying offer, which — if another team signed him — would net what amounts to a late-first round pick in next June’s draft?

It’s pretty obvious — Kazmir is a guy who has only surpassed the 30-start mark in three of his 11 seasons (including 2014, when he started 32 games), and he’s a risky rental, numbers aside.

— He was pulled from a start after three innings on May 27 due to a shoulder problem. An MRI detected nothing too serious, and he missed one start before starting against the the Red Sox (three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings) on June 5.

— He left another start after three innings on July 8 due to “triceps tightness” that he deemed “super minor.”

In a trade market that contains more viable starting pitchers than usual, Beane might not have wanted to wait and possibly get nothing for Kazmir, or have to settle for a lesser offer than what he got today from Houston. And there was no way Beane wanted to risk Kazmir getting seriously hurt between now and the end of the season, which would effectively squash the qualifying offer option.

(Unless the A’s were OK with paying a 32-year-old starter about $15 million in 2016 … I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.)

It’s interesting that the Astros, one of the most finicky teams out there when it comes to pitchers with perceived injury risk (just ask Brady Aiken and Ryan Vogelsong), went after Kazmir. That this deal occurred might indicate that the prices asked by other teams for their available starters were too high, and Houston (desperate for pitching help) jumped at a chance to rent a very good starter for two prospects that weren’t cracking any organizational top-10 lists. This might turn out to be the move that propels the Astros into the postseason, or Kazmir could break down. Based on what the A’s got back in this deal, I’m wondering if Beane expects the latter to occur relatively soon.

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