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Athletics trade Donaldson: Strap in for Mr. Beane's Wild Ride

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You never know who might fall off next.
You never know who might fall off next.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I can't explain this one. I got it when Billy Beane traded top prospects for veteran pitching in July. I was able to find the virtues in the Cespedes-for-Lester swap when most people decried it. But dealing Josh Donaldson, at this time, for that package, just doesn't make sense to me. I can't fully explain this one.

The Oakland Athletics got four players back from the Toronto Blue Jays. The highlight is Brett Lawrie, who is a third baseman but can also play second. He's a legitimately good and exciting player, and there's a chance that he could make this all worth it on his own, but he hasn't come near Donaldson's level yet and his intense playing style makes him injury-prone. Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman are young pitchers who could step into the rotation immediately -- admittedly, Beane has a great track record with that kind of pitcher and we may one day soon be thankful to have both of them. Franklin Barreto is a young lottery ticket, an 18-year-old who probably won't stick at shortstop but apparently has a legitimate bat.

The package isn't terrible, but the problem is that it doesn't seem great either. Where's the MLB-ready shortstop? Where's the top-50 prospect with huge upside? Donaldson is a superstar right now, he's likely to be one again next year, and he has four years of relatively cheap team control before he can hit the open market as a free agent after 2018. He's an immensely valuable asset, and he should only be cashed in if a deal comes by that you just can't refuse. Addison Russell and Billy McKinney only fetched two total seasons of starting pitching; is Lawrie meant to be our Russell in this deal? Am I underrating a player who posted 4.5 bWAR in 125 games as a 22-year-old in 2012, or should I expect more considering that he has less team control than Donaldson and can be a free agent after 2017? Which pitcher that I've never heard of is the Dan Straily of the deal, if not better?

What makes this more confusing is the timing. Beane had all but labeled Donaldson as untouchable, and he made a clear win-now move by bringing in Billy Butler on a multi-year deal. Why make those bold statements and then pull a complete 180 out of nowhere? Are we competing this year or rebuilding? Mere months after angering his fanbase by trading massive local favorite Yoenis Cespedes, how can he sucker punch us all again by sending away another popular star? Of course his job is to field a winning team more than it is to please the emotional whims of his constituency, but it's tough to swallow when the strategy of keeping the band together year after year through thick and thin has paid such huge dividends for the Giants while their fans have gotten the extra enjoyment of watching their favorite stars on long-term bases. Giants fans got to have their cake and eat it too, while A's fans watched as the cake was swapped for a bag of flour and two tubs of frosting. Affordability was not an issue in this case, especially considering that Donaldson was at the mercy of an arbitration process that doesn't fully value all of his skills. And sure, Beane has a good track record of making these stars-for-prospects trades look brilliant in retrospect, but 2015 felt like a year to make one more serious run rather than fold it in and plan for the future.

And that's where I just can't explain this. I'd get it if Jeff Samardzija or Scott Kazmir was the one heading out, since each only has one year of team control left. I'd get it if the return for Donaldson included something you just couldn't say no to, like Xander Bogaerts or something. I'd get it if the roster was riddled with holes and there was little hope of contention in 2015. But this feels like an emergency move without the emergency, like boarding up the windows for a hurricane just because you felt a raindrop on your head. This was Beane zagging before anyone even thought to look for him to zig. And you better believe he isn't done, either -- I'd be shocked if this trade wasn't followed by another big one. The only question is what other veterans will follow Donaldson out the door.

The best explanation I've heard for what Beane might be thinking comes from our own Tyler Bleszinski, who separated his logic into a four-part list. To paraphrase Blez:

1. In 2014, the A's finished 11 games behind the Angels and barely beat out the Mariners for the last playoff spot.
2. Beane went for it in 2014 by acquiring Shark and Lester. He went for it as hard as he'd ever gone for it. It didn't work, and that was likely the last gasp for this group in its current form.
3. The A's are always aiming to improve the pitching staff, especially by making it younger and cheaper. They were running out of depth on that front.
4. The Angels are great and their window with their current core is still wide open. The Mariners are good and have the resources to get better. This might be the year that the Astros jump into legitimacy, if not outright contention, and if not 2015 than 2016. The Rangers have a lot of guys coming back from injury. Perhaps the divisional landscape was just too difficult to justify the risk of another all-in run.

I get the first three parts of the list, but I can't agree with the fourth. It's always worth a try. Those powerful Angels could go back to their 2013 selves, with players getting hurt or under-performing. The Rangers saw everything fall apart just last year. The Mariners always seem to be a couple pieces away and always stop short of getting them. And it's not like any of those teams will give up after their current cores begin to crumble; they'll just sign the next Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish and Robinson Cano and try again. The division was supposed to be too difficult in 2012, and Oakland still somehow got it done. The Giants weren't widely predicted to make the playoffs in 2014, and they still won it all. All you need to do is win around 88-90 games, and you might have a chance at glory. It's always worth a try, and the A's had the kind of rare superstar that they can't procure any other way than by getting fortunate and developing him on their own.

I tend toward optimism, and I generally side with Billy when he makes head-scratching moves. He knows more than we do, he has the track record to back it up, and I usually figure he's earned our trust. But man, this one just feels wrong. This didn't feel like the time to sell, and it didn't feel like the package I would have expected. Premature re-tooling can indeed prevent the need for full-scale rebuilding down the road, but after the tough times and bitter end of the 2014 season the last thing we all needed was another massive letdown on the present-day club. Maybe it was okay to live in the present this time and worry about the future when we got there. Maybe the truly bold move would have been to stick with the team we already had and roll the dice one more time.

I might feel differently in a day or two, when the dust has settled, tempers have cooled and we've learned more about our new players. I might feel differently in a month or two, when some more dominoes have fallen and we start to get a better idea of what the 2015 roster will actually look like. But right now, Josh Donaldson is gone, much sooner than any of us expected. I don't like it, and I can't explain it.