Jed Lowrie and Brett Lawrie were not traded for each other last winter. Jed was acquired from the Astros for a minor leaguer, and Brett was traded to the White Sox for different minor leaguers. They were literally separate deals. But figuratively, or symbolically, and certainly functionally, it may as well have been a three-team swap.
The Oakland A's already had a full infield when they acquired Jed, an everyday infielder. Brett had spent the end of 2015 settling in at second base, Marcus Semien was the clear choice at shortstop, and Babe Valencia had materialized out of some fan's pipe dream to seize third base. (Yonder Alonso hadn't yet arrived, but first base was never a realistic destination for Jed.) You don't even need to factor in the narratives about Brett's fiery reputation or the reports of clubhouse strife -- just do the simple on-field math. One 2B came in, and then for any number of various possible reasons, another one went out. Here is what the larger theoretical trade looks like:
|A's receive||A's give up|
2B Jed Lowrie
RHP J.B. Wendelken
LHP Zack Erwin
|2B Brett Lawrie
RHP Brendan McCurry
It works out like a straight swap, with a few minor leaguers either way to balance things out. We'll never know the precise reasons why these deals were made, whether purely for baseball reasons or with off-field considerations in mind, but we can at least judge how things have worked out in the actual games. To the stat cave!
|Jed Lowrie||101||-2||-16.1||0.6||0.3||.381 BABIP|
|Brett Lawrie||107||-5||-3.2||0.8||1.1||30.3% Ks|
* Note regarding WAR: Jed has only three-quarters the playing time of Brett due to his brief DL stint. Adjust for that as you wish.
There's a lot to unpack there, so here it is translated into plain English: Brett may have been marginally better, but probably not enough to matter. He has improved at the plate largely because he's walking more, but his actual hitting hasn't been any better in terms of average or power. However, he's striking out once in every three trips to the plate, possibly because he's working deeper counts to draw those walks while retaining the swing-and-miss tendencies he displayed last year. As long as he keeps doing that it's hard to see him doing much better than his current status of slightly above-average, especially since he's already needed a .358 BABIP (50 points above his career mark) just to make up for all those times he doesn't put the ball in play.
Meanwhile, Jed has stayed in his familiar zone of league-average but via a far different path. He's sporting a career-high batting average (.315) but with career-low power (.049 isolated slugging) since only six of his 45 hits have gone for extra-bases. He's hitting the ball on the ground and to the opposite field significantly more than he ever has before, and according to Eno Sarris on ESPN Insider that's not an accident -- it's a strategy to bust defensive shifts and get on base more at the expense of power. You can point to Jed's .381 BABIP as a red flag, since it's 90 points above his career mark, but his career mark is not really a worthwhile baseline because he's fundamentally not the same hitter anymore. He might really be able to sustainably hit .300 now, but on the downside his ceiling is probably pretty close to where he is now if he's resigned himself to just hitting singles.
Both hitters have earned their at-bats, and there's plenty of reason to believe they can continue doing so. They also both seem unlikely to get much better than what they're currently doing, barring any major fundamental changes to their approaches. Maybe you prefer a guy with some power, or maybe you prefer one who makes contact and gets on base, but their bottom lines are more or less the same at the plate.
And what about defense? Through two months, judging the defensive metrics is like guessing a first-grader's future occupation based on their favorite toy -- you might be right in hindsight sometimes, but it's best to wait and see how things develop before coming to any grand conclusions or down payments. UZR says that Jed has been atrocious, before running into the other room screaming that he's the bogeyman. DRS says he's been significantly better than Brett, before giggling and pointing at Brett's funny-looking goggles. For now it doesn't matter which one is right; the point is that both players are below-average defenders, but not so bad that they'll kill your team. Jed boots some routine balls for errors but is mostly dependable at the keystone, while Brett's skill and athleticism and spazziness morph together into general competency there as well.
Put it all together and this one seems like a wash. One guy is a 2B with an average-ish bat and slightly below-average defense, and the other is a 2B with an average-ish bat and slightly below-average defense. The rest is details. Jed is making an extra $3 million this season, but after Brett hits another round of arbitration they'll probably make about the same next year (Brett might even earn more). Both can potentially be free agents after 2017. Dipping back into those narratives we ignored earlier, if you believe that there were clubhouse concerns regarding Brett then it sure makes sense to swap him out for a statistical equivalent who doesn't fit the personality profile of the Tasmanian Devil.
And the prospects? Depends how you look at it. The A's have the only one who has reached MLB in Wendelken. You can point to his poor debut, and then to McCurry's dominant Double-A numbers, and claim that Houston got the best of the three prospects. I will counter with Wendelken's Triple-A strikeout rate of 16.5 K/9 (38.3% of batters faced) and remind you that minor league numbers don't always translate directly. Erwin is struggling as a starter in Stockton, but one year ago today he hadn't even been drafted yet so let's hold off judgment for now. The prospects are exactly what they were at the times of the trades: lotto tickets, and the A's arguably have the two best ones (the starter, and the more advanced reliever).
So who is leading in the battle of Lowrie vs. Lawrie? It's just about a tie, actually. And if you're of the belief that the A's wanted to move on from Brett, then a tie is like a win for them because at least they didn't lose anything in the process.