The A’s made their first significant deal of the offseason by trading Danny Valencia to the Seattle Mariners on Saturday for minor league right-hander Paul Blackburn.
The move hardly comes as a surprise as Valencia lost the starting third base job to Ryon Healy in July and didn’t appear to be in the team’s plans looking ahead to 2017. Blackburn, an East Bay native who attended Heritage High School in Brentwood, was a first-round supplemental pick (No. 56 overall) of the Cubs in 2012. He was shipped to Seattle in July as part of the deal that sent left-hander Mike Montgomery to the eventual World Series champs.
“They had expressed interest in Danny right after the season,” A’s general manager David Forst said of the Mariners. “We took some steps in adding to the pitching depth with (the players received in) the Reddick and Hill trade. But it’s clear we need to have a rotation in place we can build around to be competitive again.”
Valencia’s departure leaves the A’s without one of their most productive right-handed bats. He hit .287 with 17 homers (third on the club) and 51 RBI last season but also garnered negative headlines when he punched teammate Billy Butler in a clubhouse altercation, leaving Butler with a concussion. Butler eventually was released in September.
There were other occasional issues, including a lack of hustle at times, that didn’t always sit well with the A’s brass. But it’s worth noting that Valencia earned praise from manager Bob Melvin for the way he handled his July demotion and his willingness to play wherever needed on the diamond. Forst also had complimentary words Saturday for Valencia, who the A’s will now see in the opposing dugout often as he suits up for an American League West rival.
“He did a nice job in our lineup,” Forst said. “This was about an opportunity to get a young starting pitcher we really like. ... It's always nice to bring an East Bay product back home.”
Blackburn, who turns 23 next month, was rated the Cubs’ No. 19 prospect by Baseball America before the 2016 season began. He went 9-5 with a 3.27 ERA in 26 games (25 starts) at Double-A split between the Cubs’ and Mariners’ organizations. He’s started in 85 of his 90 professional games, and he features a fastball that touches 94 miles per hour to go with a curve and changeup, all of which are considered above-average pitches. His control is said to be a strength.
“It’s my second time being traded within five months, it’s just crazy,” Blackburn said. “Mid-November, that doesn’t cross your mind at all.”
Blackburn grew up a Giants fan but attended lots of games at the Coliseum as a youth. He said his phone rang non-stop Saturday as word spread the A’s had acquired him.
Blackburn was asked to describe his approach on the mound.
“I’m not gonna go out and try to strike a lot people out. That’s not who I am,” he said. “The goal is to see how many people I can get out on three pitches or less. A lot of good things happen when you keep the ball on the ground.”
Blackburn joins a stable of quality young starters the A’s have acquired over the last couple of years. Sean Manaea is locked into a rotation spot for next season and fellow rookie Jharel Cotton is a strong candidate as well for one of those five spots. Raul Alcantara and Daniel Mengden are among others who saw major league time last season, and Blackburn joins a group of highly regarded minor league arms that includes Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas, who both came over from the Dodgers in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick trade deadline deal last summer.
But bolstering the outfield remains a top priority as the A’s need to acquire a center fielder and find someone for right field, where Valencia was an option. Mark Canha, who’s been working out at Cal, is coming along well after hip surgery and will factor into the equation.
“We need major league outfielders,” Forst said. “We have to be (open) to any means of acquiring, whether it’s free agents or trades. It’s certainly not our history to be aggressive at the top end of the free agent market, but we have money to spend and we have some good options. Mark Canha coming back will help fill this gap.”