Once again, the Oakland A’s have zigged when you expected them to zag.
At the start of the off-season, it looked like the A’s had three distinct choices for how to proceed with their roster construction: re-build, re-tool or re-load. All three roadmaps were distinct possibilities, but when the A’s signed free agent DH Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million deal last week and acquired first baseman Ike Davis in a trade, it appeared that the A’s were taking re-building off of the table.
Not so fast.
On Black Friday, the A’s sent their franchise player to the Toronto Blue Jays in a package that netted them four players in return. In doing so, the A’s have once again shown that when you expect them to act one way, they will almost always act another way.
The official trade is as follows: Oakland deals third baseman and team MVP Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for infielder Brett Lawrie, LHP Sean Nolin, RHP Kendall Graveman and shortstop Franklin Barreto. Lawrie, Nolin and Graveman were all members of the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster, but only Lawrie has significant major-league experience. The A’s also designated Kyle Blanks and Josh Lindblom for assignment to make room for their new acquisitions.
From a short-term perspective, this deal makes the Blue Jays a significant contender in the AL East and pushes the A’s back behind the Angels and Mariners, and possibly the Rangers, in the AL West. The Blue Jays still need to add pitching, but their line-up looks to be one of the best in baseball now with Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson. Donaldson is in his first season of arbitration-eligibility, so the Blue Jays should have plenty of salary room to add pitching as the off-season progresses.
The A’s are left with a line-up that has seen its two most feared hitters traded away over the past six months. Even though the A’s still have some quality hitters in their line-up, without Yoenis Cespedes and Donaldson in the middle, the A’s certainly won’t strike any fear in the hearts of opposing pitching staffs. Of course, that doesn’t mean much if the team can produce anyway. The AL Champion Kansas City Royals had the least feared line-up going into the post-season this year, and they ran roughshod over every pitcher in the post-season not named Madison Bumgarner.
Still, it’s hard to see the A’s competing for a title with the roster they have right now. They still have a major hole or two to fill in the middle infield and question-marks in terms of health with several of their top returning offensive players. It isn’t an unreasonable position for the A’s to be taking that they didn’t have the talent to compete with the Angels, Mariners or Rangers this off-season, but it does beg the question why they threw $30 million at Butler a week before significantly decreasing their chances to be competitive.
Lawrie will slide into Donaldson’s spot at third base. Always one of the most talented players in the league, Lawrie has yet to realize his full potential, in part because of an all-out style of play that often leads to injuries. He appeared in just 70 games last season because of injury. His health may improve not playing his home games on the turf at Rogers Centre, but he joins a long list of players on the A’s roster with significant injury histories.
When healthy, Lawrie has plenty of gap power and, at age 24, might finally be reaching his power potential. He slugged .421 last season, a career-best, although his SLG was .496 at the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre and .353 away from home. He is an aggressive hitter who has a career OBP of .323 in 345 career major league games. Lawrie made his major-league debut in 2011 and is eligible for arbitration for the first time this off-season.
Lawrie has experience playing both third and second base, although A’s General Manager Billy Beane indicated on the post-trade conference call that Lawrie would take over for Donaldson at third. A native of Canada, Lawrie was the 16th overall pick out of high school in 2008 by the Milwaukee Brewers. He was traded to Toronto for Shaun Marcum in December 2010 and made his big league debut the following season.
In some ways, Lawrie and Donaldson have a lot in common. Both were catchers early in their careers and both are superb athletes who can do things on the baseball field that few others can. Both play with an all-out style that heeds little regard to their bodies and both can be outspoken both on and off the field.
Lawrie has a long way to go to be the player Donaldson has been at the big-league level the past two-and-a-half seasons, however. Over the past two years, only Mike Trout accumulated more WAR than Donaldson. Donaldson led the A’s in homeruns (29) and RBI (98) last season and was by far their best defensive infielder. He also demonstrated an ability to play through pain.
In addition to Lawrie, the A’s acquired two pitchers who could factor into the A’s 2015 season and a shortstop prospect who is several years away but will instantly be one of their top prospects in the farm system.
Sean Nolin is a left-hander who just completed an Arizona Fall League stint during which he played on the same team as the A’s contingent. Nolin pitched 97 innings at Triple-A last year and posted a 3.43 ERA and an 88:39 K:BB. He struck-out 24 and walked six in 22.1 innings for Mesa this fall. Nolin has two big league appearances, during which he has allowed seven runs in 2.1 innings. He will turn 25 in December. A groin injury limited him during the 2014 regular season. He is a four-pitch pitcher (fastball, change-up, slider, curveball) who has good command.
Graveman was a 2013 eighth-round pick. He tore through the minor leagues last season, advancing from Low-A to the big leagues. In 27 starts, he had a 1.83 ERA in 167.1 innings. He allowed just 142 hits and 31 walks and he struck-out 115. He used an excellent cut-fastball to post a 1.95 GO/AO. Graveman made his major-league debut for Toronto in September and allowed two runs in 4.2 innings over five relief appearances.
Both Nolin and Graveman give the A’s some depth in the starting rotation and could play roles either in the rotation or the bullpen if Oakland deals some of their other veterans, such as Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir. Deals involving Samardzija and Kazmir seem more likely now that the A’s have traded Donaldson.
Barreto is the prize of the trade package for the A’s, but he is the player who is furthest away from the big leagues. A July 2 signing by Toronto in 2012, Barreto played his 2014 season in short-season with the Vancouver Canadians. He had a big year for the C’s at the plate, hitting .311/.384/.481 in a hitting environment that is generally devastating on hitters. Barreto is only 5’9’’, 175, but he has shown plenty of pop and has excellent speed. He is likely to start next year at Low-A with the Beloit Snappers.
I will take a closer look at the players the A’s have gotten in return for Donaldson in this deal in the coming days. For now, it is hard not to focus on what the A’s have given up. In many ways, Donaldson has been the face of the A’s recent resurgence, with his emergence in late 2012 helping to spark Oakland’s unlikely post-season run and his bat and glove carrying the team to the post-season the past two years. He was also one of the longest-tenured members of the organization, having arrived via a trade in 2008. Only 2007 first-round pick Sean Doolittle has been around longer.
Trading away fan-favorites is nothing new for the A’s, who have dealt Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Yoenis Cespedes over the past decade. However, rarely have the A’s made such a deal when the team was seemingly in a position to compete. The 2004 trades of Mulder and Hudson came on the heels of the A’s missing out on the post-season by just one game, but both Hudson and Mulder were nearing their free agency years, so their trades seemed almost inevitable.
Ironically, the trade that brought Donaldson to the A’s was one of the rare times where Oakland took themselves out of contention before they were definitively out of the race. It took several years before the A’s got any return for Harden, but Donaldson eventually made that trade a win for Oakland.
Looking five years down the road isn’t going to be any consolation for A’s fans, however, who have had to say goodbye to so many favorites during the Schott-Hoffman and now Wolff-Fisher regimes. With the cross-town San Francisco Giants winning three World Series in five years, the A’s were already facing a huge deficit in terms of local fan attention. This trade will do the A’s no favors when competing for fans going into 2015. While that may not matter from a baseball perspective, one would have to think at some point it should matter from a business perspective.
Stay tuned for more on this trade in the coming days.