Did the A’s Lose Big With the Donaldson Trade?

By: Simon Westley

On Friday, third baseman Josh Donaldson was traded away from Oakland for former Blue Jays’ third baseman Brett Lawrie and prospects Sean Nolin, Franklin Barreto, and Kendall Graveman.

Donaldson has been one of the best players in baseball the past two seasons, placing 6th in the major leagues with 6.4 WAR (Fangraphs) in 2014 and only behind Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen with 7.7 WAR the prior year. (Wins above replacement is a statistic that attempts to determine the total value of a player, including baserunning and defense, and puts it into one number.) Donaldson is one of the best defensive third baseman in the game, if not the best. He placed only behind Chase Headley among third baseman in Fangraphs’ UZR and only behind Kyle Seager by Baseball-Reference’s total zone runs. While displaying his stunning defensive work, Donaldson has also managed to dominate pitching despite playing in the cavernous O.CO Coliseum. Only statistics that include the stadium’s effects accurately portray his brilliance: his wRC+ was 129 in 2014 and 147 in 2013, suggesting that he was 29% better than league average last year and close to 50% better the year before. Donaldson has also been incredibly reliable–playing in 158 of 162 games both of the last two seasons–and is not a free agent (or costing much money) until 2018. It is clear why Blue jays GM Alex Anthopoulos made this move: he now has one of the best players in baseball, and his 3-4-5 of Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson is as frightening as any lineup in the game. But why would A’s GM Billy Beane trade Donaldson under any circumstance?

Beane would only trade the club’s best player if he got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and according to him that is what Anthopoulos offered.

The first possibility to explore is that Beane has foreseen a Josh Donaldson collapse. To begin with, Donaldson will be 29 at the dawn of the 2015 season, which indicates that his prime years will be over quite soon. Donaldson has other potential scares in his statistics as well. He made 3% less contact on pitches last year than the year before, which doesn’t sound significant. However, his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone stayed the same as in 2013, while his out-of-zone contact rate fell off a cliff. His contact oddity isn’t the only turn off:

Out of zone contact % K% BB% Line drive %
2013 70.8% 16.5% 11.4% 20.6%
2014 58.7% 18.7% 10.9% 13.5%

 

Donaldson’s failure to connect with pitches out of the zone coincided with more strikeouts and less walks, despite more intentional walks in 2014 (2 in 2013, 5 in 2014). Both Donaldson’s walk and strikeout rates were still fantastic last year, but they both became worse. Though batted ball rates fluctuate, his line drive rate (an indicator of a well-hit baseball) also took a significant hit last year. Lastly, Donaldson fell apart a bit at the end of the year, hitting just .233 BA/.307 OBP/.379 SLG in September and October, though that may have easily been a fluke of small sample size. No statistic definitively demonstrates that Donaldson is due for a collapse, but it is quite possible that Billy Beane noticed enough red flags for him to want to sell high on Josh Donaldson’s value.

Brett Lawrie is the only major leaguer from the Blue Jays side of the deal, and like Donaldson his contract is no issue, as Lawrie hasn’t had much MLB service. However, unlike Donaldson, Lawrie has yet to blossom into anything better than fairly average. He broke onto the big league scene as a highly touted and overly energetic prospect, and he raked during his first taste of the majors, ending a 43 game stint in 2011 with a 157 wRC+. Unfortunately, Lawrie came down to Earth in his first (and only) full season, as he only managed to play in 125 games, posting a mediocre 97 wRC+. His following two years have been similarly run-of-the-mill, though more riddled with injuries, as he has only scraped by playing in 177 games through both years. It is also worth noting that Rogers Centre is much friendlier towards hitters than O.CO, so even if Lawrie’s performance stays around average his other statistics will appear worse due to park effects. Despite Lawrie’s disappointing previous few years, he does bring a lot to the table. While he isn’t at Donaldson’s level with the glove, he certainly isn’t too shabby, and if anyone can replace the former Oakland infielder’s skill with the leather it is Lawrie (in his only full season Lawrie posted a UZR of 4.5 and saved 14 total zone runs, both very solid marks). Lawrie was also a big offensive threat in the minors, despite his mostly average showings in the major leagues, both slugging and running the bases well, and he has shown flashes of this talent. Despite his injuries with the Blue Jays, he has hit double digits in home runs every year besides his small sample of a rookie season, and he managed to swipe 13 bags in his only full year. While Lawrie doesn’t draw many walks, he also doesn’t strike out much, with a career K-rate of 16.4%. He has also shown consistently more power as he has aged, which is a promising sign: excluding his rookie year, Lawrie’s isolated slugging (slugging minus batting average, a way of determining raw power) has gone up each season. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Brett Lawrie is only 24 years old (25 at season’s start). 

However, despite Lawrie’s potential, he might not have been the only attention-grabber in the deal. Franklin Barreto plays the coveted position of shortstop and likely was brought into the A’s system in part to fill in Addison Russell’s spot. Barreto has only played in A- and rookie ball and his plate discipline hasn’t been fantastic, but a mix of speed and power has mostly made up for that. Last year through 73 games in A-, Barreto hit .311 BA/.384 OBP/.481 SLG and stole an insane 29 bases. If he can cut down on strikeouts he will certainly offer a lot of offensive value, though he may be able to sustain a high BABIP despite a lack of particular discipline, especially given his speed. That is not to mention that Barreto is considered a fantastic defenseman at a very valuable position. If his defensive scouting reports are true, the bat is just the cherry on top of a great player. Pitcher Sean Nolin is one of the other prospects in the deal, and he brings at least as much to the table as Barreto. Nolin has a career 3.06 ERA in the minor leagues with 9.26 K/9 and just 2.92 BB/9. Though he is not susceptible enough to provoke much worry, Nolin has given up a few long balls in his minor league career, but the spacious coliseum should help him out with that—his only noticeable flaw. Nolin has pitched in AAA and is ready for the major leagues now (in fact, he has thrown 1+ innings for the Blue Jays in each of the last two years). The final prospect obtained by the Athletics was Kendall Graveman, a control pitcher who spent most of his year in A+ in 2014, though he also threw a considerable amount of innings in AAA and even managed 4.2 innings in the Bigs. While Graveman has not displayed the ability to strike men out so far in his playing career, he both has impeccable control and a tendency to avoid homeruns. This controlled pitching style should allow him to adjust to the major leagues fairly easily, though unless he develops a strikeout pitch he might not grace the front of a rotation. All in all, the Oakland Athletics loaded themselves with minor league talent in return for Donaldson and also managed to garner a more than acceptable (though injury prone) replacement.

The trade was fair on paper. The Blue Jays received a stud that they hope will push their team over the edge. The A’s traded a player who is possibly near the end of his prime for four players with loads of potential, including three who are major league-ready. However, the question about the direction of the Athletics remains, especially in light of the Billy Butler and Ike Davis acquisitions, and the swirling rumor mill. Butler is a designated hitter who struggled mightily for the majority of 2014 and will be in his age 29 season, and Davis is a first baseman in his late twenties who has had consistency and health issues throughout the course of his career. Neither the acquisitions of Butler nor Davis suggest that the Athletics are in rebuild-mode, particularly Butler, who will be paid 30 million over the next three years. On the other hand, the A’s are losing large pieces to free agency like starting pitcher Jon Lester and shortstop Jed Lowrie, and Donaldson is probably not the last player to be moved, as names such as outfielder Josh Reddick, first baseman/ outfielder Brandon Moss, and starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija have been mentioned on the trading block. The Donaldson trade brought youth to the A’s, but only further offseason moves will accurately depict Billy Beane’s plan for the team.

Cover Image: By NewJack984 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons