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In Defense of the Donaldson Trade

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Of all the recent trades Billy Beane has made, sending Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays was perhaps the most maligned. Six months later, how does that trade look?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the encouraging play of late, I think we can all agree that 2015 has been a disappointing season thus far for A's fans. We've gotten used to winning in the past few years, and it's just not fun to be toward the bottom of the division looking up.

To make matters worse, the best player on our 2013 and 2014 teams, Josh Donaldson, is playing like an MVP in a different city (a different country!), making highlight reel catches and putting up a top-10 WAR in the MLB. There's a strong sentiment amongst fans I talk to that if only Josh Donaldson hadn't been traded, the team would be in a much better position both this year and in the future. The overwhelming opinion is that the Josh Donaldson trade was a catastrophic mistake by Billy Beane.

Emotionally, I hear it. I miss JD too. But at the time I (cautiously) liked the trade, and I'm still convinced that it's helped the A's long-term plans to be competitive.

Here are the indisputable facts: in November, Josh Donaldson was traded to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Franklin Barreto.

Now for the much more disputable opinions:

1. The Trade Made the A's Worse in 2015, but Not By as Much as You Might Think

As noted earlier, Donaldson has been playing out of his freaking mind in Toronto. He's played his signature incredible defense and been a force at the plate, putting up a 3.9 bWAR. That's insanely good- MVP-level good. If he continues at this pace, he'd put up about 8 bWAR, which is incredible.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, his replacement, Brett Lawrie, has been solid. He's put up 1.6 bWAR, which puts him on pace for a bit over 3 bWAR, which is typically thought of as numbers typical of an above-average starter. He obviously doesn't compare to JD, but he's been a quality contributor.

Still, the numbers don't lie: Donaldson has put up 3.9 bWAR at 3B, Lawrie has put up 1.6. That's a loss, and a big one...

... except the trade wasn't Donaldson for Lawrie. It was Donaldson for Lawrie, Graveman, Nolin and Barreto.

Kendall Graveman is already contributing solidly at the major league level. Since his return from the minors, he's struck out nearly a fifth of the batters he's faced, cut his walks, and has a WHIP since then of 1.20, which would be good for Top 40 of MLB starters this year. In that time, he's put up 0.8 bWAR.

What's more, he takes up a key spot in the rotation. If Donaldson hadn't been traded, we'd need one more starter, which would likely be taken up by Drew Pomeranz. He's essentially been a replacement player this year.

If you add Lawrie's 1.6 bWAR to Graveman's 0.8, you end up with a combined 2.4 wins. This is still obviously significantly less than Donaldson's 3.9, but it's less egregious, and with Lawrie heating up and Graveman seeming to have found a groove, I think you'll see this difference narrow even more in the coming months.

2. Lawrie and Graveman are Still Young, While Donaldson is Peaking Now

Age matters in the MLB. Players who follow a normal growth-curve typically improve throughout their twenties until peaking in the late 20s to early 30s, before again declining in their mid-30s. Here's the thing: Lawrie is still just 25 years old. Graveman is 24 years old.

Donaldson? 29 years old. While you may not see him start to decline for a few more years, he is likely peaking now, and you're unlikely to see a significant leap in his performance. On the other hand, both Lawrie and Graveman are a few years from a typical player's peak. There's a good chance that Lawrie will continue to improve (you can even see him making strides over the course of this season). Graveman, with only a few major-league starts under his belt, is also likely to significantly better his numbers as he develops and learns the ins and outs of major league pitching (hopefully, mostly outs). While there's still major difference in their production in the present, I expect that that difference will disappear as Lawrie and Graveman grow and Donaldson peaks in the (near) future.

3. There are Two Quality Prospects From the Trade Still in the Minors

I've discussed the combined production of Graveman and Lawrie, but there were two other players acquired in the trade as well: Sean Nolin and Franklin Barreto. These are prospects of very different profiles.

Nolin is of the mold of the kind of prospect Billy Beane has made it a habit of acquiring over the past few years: high-minors, nearly major-league ready. In fact, Nolin already has 2 major league appearances under his belt. He's been pitching pretty well in Nashville: he's got a 2.89 ERA, striking out almost 19% of batters he's faced. He's the kind of pitching depth that the A's always seem to have, ready to step into the rotation if necessary.

Franklin Barreto, on the other hand, is a blue-chipper. He's a Top 100 Prospect by Baseball America Top (#86 overall), (#70), FanGraphs (#79), and Minor League Ball (#38). He plays a premium position in shortstop, and is only 19 (!!!!!) years old. He's currently holding his own in A+ ball, but he doesn't ever need to reach the majors to be useful. Beane has been known to use highly regarded low minors players as trade bait, with the knowledge that many low minors prospects never make the majors. In Barreto, he's got a player with a legit shot at being a young, quality major league contributor- or he can flip him for someone more major league ready, with these types of prospects coming at a premium right now around the league.

Essentially, Beane was able to flip a peaking star for some big-time flexibility. The team got younger both in the infield and in the rotation with some improved depth at both the major league and minor league level to boot. He sacrificed a few wins in 2015 with the knowledge that he'd give the team room to maneuver to make themselves much, much better for 2016 and beyond.


I've been spending some time recently pondering another recent A's trade, and would love to know the community's thoughts. If you could answer the poll below (unrelated to the above article), I would be much obliged. Feel free to give me your reasoning, as well, in the comments!