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Athletics offseason: Explaining the Josh Donaldson trade

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You don't have to like it. But let's at least explain the logic behind it.

Due to the exchange rate, solo homers are worth 1.2 runs in Canada.
Due to the exchange rate, solo homers are worth 1.2 runs in Canada.
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The Josh Donaldson trade is nearly a week old, and the initial shock has now worn off. We've had time to digest the news, to swirl it around in our mouths like a fine bathtub gin, to appreciate all the flavors and nuances. It still tastes gross, and we should remember to clean out the tub next time before distilling spirits in it, but the logic behind Billy Beane's bold move is starting to surface. So let's take a quick break from throwing up in our mouths to figure out why this happened. My aim is not to convince you that it was smart or dumb, but merely to explain the "why" of the situation.

We must begin by accepting some truths. We'll start with the one that was apparently the premise of Beane's thought process.

The current Oakland Athletics core was entering its decline phase

The A's had a good run the last three seasons. They made the playoffs each year, and they did so with a fantastic core of misfit toys. But no matter how bullish you are, or were, on their chances in 2015, the fact remains that this group had already seen its best days.

Think about it. Donaldson wasn't going to get any better than his last two seasons, which were each worth seven or eight wins. He could have sustained that level of production as a best-case scenario, but he also could have dropped off a little bit. Maybe he'd have been worth six wins next year. Maybe he'd get hurt for a month. But he wasn't likely to get better, which means that by definition he'd already hit his peak and the only direction left was down.

How about the rest of the roster? The starting rotation is now without depth, since Parker and Griffin are necessarily question marks and Straily and Milone are gone and Lester and Hammel are free agents. There's the top five of Sonny, Shark, Kazmir, Chavez, and Pomeranz, there's Brad Mills floating around in Triple-A, and that's about all you can count on. Free agent starters are stupid expensive. There are no legitimate prospects in the upper minors, with Arnold Leon turning in a disappointing 2014, and otherwise there are just the unreliable elbows of Park 'n' Griff. Assume a bit of attrition -- someone else tears an elbow, one of the backend guys fails to repeat his solid 2014, etc. -- and this rotation had undeniably passed its peak and was headed downhill. Don't worry about why that happened or who shouldn't have been traded last year; worry about the current situation, the actual reality, and recognize that the rotation was a cause for concern.

And the lineup? Moss is 31, and he just effectively lost half a season to a wear-and-tear injury. He could come back to hit 30 homers next year, but the likely truth is that we've seen his best already. Coco suffered an injury that included the word "degenerative" and it seems foolish to ever expect him to match his career-best 2013 campaign. There are still no middle infielders, and the only ones available on the open market are all mediocre players who will require sizable overpays to sign. Norris can't seem to stay strong through a whole season, and it's unlikely that Vogt will ever play better than he did last year. Josh Reddick is the only position player for whom I hold out hope for improvement, since I think we finally saw him get healthy at the end of 2014, but even at his best I don't think he'll carry the team. (Add Norris to that list if he ever switches positions to save his health.) As with the pitchers, there isn't really anything in the upper minors that will help substantially at any position, so promoting the next wave from within isn't an option for 2015. Again, don't worry how things got that way, just accept that it's now a reality.

Let me make it clear that I'm not saying each and every one of these players will fall off a cliff next year. I'm only saying that their best-case scenarios are to match what they've already done, and what they've already done was only good enough for a couple ALDS losses and a Wild Card failure. There's no way to plug every hole and build the depth back up except by spending piles on the free agent market, and that's not something the A's will ever do. The most likely result of keeping this core together would be to watch it slowly drop out of contention while getting more expensive. Beane would rather sell too early than too late, and while that's a difficult decision to make it's also not without merit.

Donaldson is not your normal pre-arb player

Josh Donaldson is a superstar entering his first year of arbitration. That description elicits a certain response in our brains, because it causes us to picture a certain type of player. Specifically, a younger player.

Donaldson was 27 when he played his first full MLB season. That's why it was such a surprise when he reached the heights of the last two years -- most guys who debut that late don't turn into seven-win players. If you have that kind of talent, you probably debuted when you were 23, or 25 at the latest. And if you'd debuted at 24, you'd be 26 at the point in the service time spectrum at which Donaldson currently finds himself. You'd have several more peak years ahead of you, and maybe even a slim chance of improvement.

That's what makes Donaldson so unique. Sure, his next four seasons are cost-controlled, but they aren't the same as, say, Years 3-6 of Andrew McCutchen, one of Donaldson's only contemporaries in value. When the Pirates locked up Cutch before 2012, after he'd played three full seasons, they were paying for ages 25-30, his physical prime, because he'd come up as a top prospect and debuted at 23. Donaldson will already be 29 next season. So, even though he was contractually young, he was not as physically young as similar players in his situation. That is crucial. Defense, a large part of his value, isn't a good bet to stay at a peak level past 30, and for all the talk of Brett Lawrie's injury problems I am simply shocked that Donaldson played 158 games each of the last two years with the way he throws his body around on defense and dives haphazardly into the plate on close plays. What year will be the one when he only plays 120 games? Or 90?

There is a perception that Beane is trending toward dealing his stars earlier and earlier in their careers. He used to keep them through free agency, then he dealt them with one more year of control, and now he's moved up to cashing in on four years of control. I think he sees it differently, though. Let's take a look at the other recent homegrown stars who left via trade or free agency:

Player Age in last Oakland season # of 4-win seasons after departure
Tim Hudon 28 2
Mark Mulder 26 0
Barry Zito 28 0
Jason Giambi 30 3
Miguel Tejada 29 3
Dan Haren 26 3
Nick Swisher 26 0
Trevor Cahill 23 0
Gio Gonzalez 25 1
Josh Donaldson 28 N/A

* I'm using bWAR, for this table and for all WAR reference in this post.

When you look at it in terms of ages instead of purely based on years of service time, Donaldson fits right in. Giambi stuck around a little bit longer, but even he had used up all six of his cheap years by age 30. The Big 3 were all the same age or younger when they left. Tejada was in the same neighborhood when he wrapped up his six years of control. Cahill and Gio were even younger, but their trades were products of situation (the 100% necessary 2012 rebuild) and they each returned fantastic hauls. The moral of this story is not that Beane trades guys at certain points in their service time clocks, but rather that when he knows he has to trade his big stars he'd rather cash in before they turn 30. He gets maximum value by dealing them right before they visibly decline.

That last column in the table shows how many more four-win seasons they had left in them after their departures. Giambi and Tejada both stayed strong for a bit, but it required enormous free agent contracts to reap those rewards. Haren stayed good, but two of those star years came at ages 27 and 28 (and that was still one of the best trades Beane has ever made). Gio's best post-A's effort came at age 26. Swisher came close to four wins a couple times, but never reached it. Raise your bar for a star-level season to five wins, and you get six total years from this group, mostly by Tejada and a still-young Haren.

And the other side of the coin? Eric Chavez was re-signed for ages 27-32, and he provided just one season above three wins in that time, in the first year of the contract. He was effectively done after age 29.

Most importantly, it had nothing to do with Donaldson getting more expensive. It had to do with the specter of him getting worse as he aged.

Looking at it like this, it's tough to argue with Beane's history of selling high on his stars. The free agents were kept as long as possible and contributed to playoff teams, and the only bad trade return from that group was Hudson. The one guy who did get re-signed served as a poster boy for why to not re-sign your stars into their 30s. The data is clear, and it was screaming to cash in on Donaldson as soon as possible. Most importantly, it had nothing to do with Donaldson getting more expensive. It had to do with the specter of him getting worse as he aged, at a time when the team needed to be getting better in order to justify keeping the core.

And don't look now, but 31-year-old Moss is the next player in the thick of trade rumors. I'd be surprised if he was still here in April, especially with the team getting younger and hitting the restart button on its window.

Brett Lawrie is more valuable than we are giving him credit for

I know that Lawrie seems like an underwhelming return for Donaldson. I'm about to argue the opposite, and even I am not convinced by my upcoming words. He's not as good of a hitter, he's not as good of a fielder, he's never stayed healthy, and he's got one year fewer of team control. But he's an absolute catch.

It appears that there has been a shift in what teams want for their top players. They aren't aiming for top prospects anymore. That might be because teams simply won't part with those prospects, but I wonder if it's also partly because top prospects are still so risky -- Dan Meyer, Matt LaPorta, and Michael Taylor are good examples of guys who were centerpieces of deals for MLB stars and then failed to make the jump to the Majors. Instead, young-ish MLB regulars like Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly, Yoenis Cespedes and now Lawrie are the going rate for stars like Price, Lester, and Donaldson -- and remember, the Rays turned down Addison Russell before going with Jackson and Smyly. Perhaps that's because the floor for Jackson is a decent everyday player while the floor for, say, Meyer (in the Hudson trade) was a guy who never really made it to the Majors. Heck, the Red Sox weren't even contending last year and they still wanted a guy with MLB experience for their top trade chip. Beane didn't flip Donaldson for a prospect because he wanted to be guaranteed of getting something in return on the field, especially something that could help right away. He wanted to avoid making the mistake he made with Hudson.

That's where Lawrie comes in. He was once a top-50 prospect, and he's still only 25 next year. He was already a productive Major Leaguer at age 22, which is rare. And although he's been hurt a lot the last two years, he's still been good when he's played. While I think Donaldson is the best defender at third in the bigs right now, Lawrie isn't a big drop-off, if he's a drop-off at all, and there's a ton of upside in his bat. You hate to have to put the "if healthy" tag on your big prize, but it's not hard to see how he could break out next year and at least come close to what Donaldson did for us. And if he breaks out while Donaldson falls off a bit, it's even within the realm of possibility that Lawrie could be better next year. I mean, did anyone think Parker would be better than Cahill in 2012? Probably not, but it happened, and it happened for us because Beane is committed to looking forward instead of holding too dearly to the past.

Am I saying it's likely that Lawrie will out-play Donaldson in 2015? Of course not. But it's at least conceivable, and it is likely that Lawrie will be a good player next year on both sides of the ball. Two years ago, Lawrie would have been hands down the best player in this deal, and he's still the younger of the two headliners and hasn't hit his physical peak. Youngsters who have successfully made the jump to MLB are apparently the new top prospects, in terms of the trade market, and Lawrie is a hell of a prospect.

***

There you go. The core was starting to crumble, and Beane decided to switch it out before it came crashing down. Donaldson is an aging player masquerading as a young superstar, and Beane sold high before the point when history suggests that his value would have begun to plummet. And Lawrie is almost certainly more valuable than we yet realize.

I'll be honest with you. I still don't agree with it. I would have kept Donaldson for one more year, banked on one more seven-win season from him and made an all-out run for 2015. But I'm not so sure that it would have worked, and a large part of my preference is emotional because I love watching him play. I'm even more unsure that we would have gotten a player of Lawrie's caliber in return next winter -- maybe we would have gotten a guy who hadn't proved anything at the MLB level, or a lesser young star, or fewer complementary pieces (say, no Barreto).

You're probably still upset that Addison Russell is gone, and that Yoenis Cespedes is gone, and maybe even that Tommy Milone is gone, but it's time to move on from those deals. Gambles were made and they didn't pan out with a championship. They are done now and we can't go back and undo them. What we can do is focus on the task at hand, which is winning games in 2015 and beyond. Billy believed that the best way to do that was to break up the core we'd grown to love, yet again, and Donaldson just happened to be the first domino to fall. He could have gone out and added another big hitter, or he could have signed a couple solid middle infielders, or he could have shored up the rotation, but he couldn't do all of those things via free agency and he was out of minor league trade chips. Something had to give.

This breakup came sooner than we expected, but we all knew it was coming. You don't have to like it, but at least understand why it happened. And get ready for it to continue happening throughout the winter. The bright side is that when Beane rebuilds, it usually works.