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What if the Oakland A’s hadn’t traded Josh Donaldson before 2015?

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As bad as that deal was, the alternate reality might be even worse.

Philadelphia Phillies v Oakland Athletics

It has now been zero days since our last mention of the Josh Donaldson trade.

This week’s theme on SB Nation is What If, looking back at a crucial moment in team history and imaging how things might have gone differently if that moment had turned the other way. For the Oakland A’s, I’m going with the Donaldson trade. I’ve long maintained that I would have held onto him for one more season in 2015, and then traded him the next winter, so let’s see how that would have changed things.

First, let’s set the scene. On November 28, 2014, the A’s traded Donaldson to the Blue Jays for four players: Brett Lawrie to replace him at third base, plus pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin to immediately slot into the rotation, plus teenage shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto.

In real life, it all worked out poorly: The 2015 A’s lost 94 games, Lawrie was so bad that he got flipped away the next winter, and Nolin threw 29 bad innings and then never appeared in the majors again due to injuries. Barreto worked his way onto national Top 50 prospect lists but is yet to pan out at the MLB level after several tries. The biggest success in the trade package was Graveman, who managed 400 league-average innings over the next three seasons but eventually had Tommy John surgery in 2018 and was released after that summer.

Meanwhile, Donaldson won the MVP in Toronto in 2015 and posted 7+ WAR in each of 2015-16, though he declined sharply after that in 2017-18. The whole episode was pretty much a worst-case scenario form Oakland’s standpoint.

What if it didn’t happen? What if they’d waited until after 2015 to trade Donaldson?

2014-15 offseason

It’s the day after Thanksgiving in 2014. No major baseball news comes out that day, given that it’s the day after Thanksgiving and everyone is busy spending time with family and recovering from post-holiday food comas. And anyway, nine days ago the A’s made a big early splash in free agency by signing Billy Butler, stealing him away from the Royals team that two months ago had broken Oakland’s hearts in the Wild Card Game.

Despite keeping Donaldson and signing Butler, the A’s are still looking to retool a roster that seems to have passed its peak. Between their big second-half collapse, and their postseason failure, and losing some key players to free agency (Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie, and yes even Jason Hammel), they need to hit the reset button if they want any hope of staying in contention.

With that goal in mind, Oakland still trades Brandon Moss to the Indians (for 2B Joey Wendle), Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox (for SS Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley, and a prospect who never pans out), and Derek Norris to the Padres (for RHP Jesse Hahn and a reliever who busts). That small fire sale turns out to be wise — Moss is never again a productive player despite decent homer totals; Samardzija leads the majors in earned runs allowed in 2015 before becoming a free agent at year’s end; and Norris has one good year in San Diego in 2015 before fading into oblivion. The MLB-ready-ish return packages don’t amount to much for the next couple years, but at least some salary gets cleared off the books to help pay for Butler.

However, one real-life deal doesn’t happen. In January, the Real A’s acquired Ben Zobrist (and Yunel Escobar, who we’ll get to in a moment) from the Rays, for catcher John Jaso, infield prospect Daniel Robertson, and outfield prospect Boog Powell.

The Zobrist part of the exchange added about $4.5 million to the payroll, with Jaso going the other way to offset part of Zobrist’s salary, but the What If A’s need that money elsewhere. After all, they never saved $2.5 million on the Donaldson-Lawrie swap, plus they need to sign at least one new starting pitcher since they never got Graveman and Nolin, not to mention the bullpen. They’re also reluctant to part with Robertson, since they never acquired Barreto to replace him in the system. So Jaso, Robertson, and Powell remain.

As for Escobar, in real life the A’s immediately flipped him to the Nationals for star reliever Tyler Clippard, who was in his final, expensive arbitration year before free agency. Oakland still needs late-inning relief help to pair with Sean Doolittle (whose health is a question in its own right), and they don’t mind overpaying in salary to get it (as they had with Jim Johnson the previous winter), so they still make this deal. However, since they never got Escobar, they instead send Jaso to Washington, where he pairs with (and provides insurance for) the injury-prone Wilson Ramos, who had averaged just 64 games over the last three seasons.

And that does it for the offseason. Everything is the same, except the A’s have Donaldson at 3B instead of Lawrie, a stopgap free agent SP instead of Graveman, and slightly more Eric Sogard and Sam Fuld to replace the 67 games they aren’t getting from Zobrist in 2B/LF.

2015 season

The 2015 A’s are still terrible. Their pitching staff is a mess, as is their defense, which is one of the worst in all of MLB (just like in real life). Keeping Donaldson in the fold helps them win a few more games, but he can’t come close to fixing all the problems himself. Instead of going 68-94, they earn five extra wins (Donaldson’s 7 bWAR, offset by 2ish WAR from Lawrie and Zobrist), finishing at 73-89, still last place in the AL West.

As in real life, Oakland still sells off some stars at the deadline, including Clippard and Scott Kazmir, because they’re impending free agents. But Donaldson still has three years of control left, so there’s no rush to trade him yet and he finishes the summer in green and gold. However, since they never got Zobrist, they never trade him to the Royals and thus never get Sean Manaea.

After the season, Donaldson does not win the MVP. In real life he posted 41 HR and 123 RBI in Toronto’s favorable stadium and quality lineup, earning a solid-but-not-runaway voting margin over Mike Trout. But in the Coliseum’s marine air he only hits 38 dingers, and the A’s inferior lineup leads him to only drive in 109 runs. Those are still great numbers, but the sparkle is lessened, and he doesn’t have the bonus of his team reaching the postseason. Instead, Trout earns his second straight MVP, with his 9+ WAR and 41 homers for an Angels team that barely missed the playoffs. Donaldson finishes fourth, behind Lorenzo Cain and Manny Machado.

2015-16 offseason

The retool failed to keep the A’s in contention, and now they’re ready to rebuild. Fortunately, they have a massive trade chip in Donaldson, who is coming off his best season yet and will now be due eight figures in arbitration. That’s expensive for the A’s, but not enough to stop them from acquiring a massive return from another club.

However, the Blue Jays are no longer interested. They’ve made other moves to fill out their lineup, and so Oakland looks elsewhere. In real life, the biggest trade for a third baseman that winter was All-Star Todd Frazier going from the Reds to the White Sox (for Frankie Montas and Trayce Thompson, among others). But in What If Land, Chicago takes the chance to go even bigger by getting perennial MVP candidate Donaldson from the A’s.

Of course, the Sox need to dangle a much bigger package than they did for Frazier. Oakland scores a massive haul by nabbing their two top prospects, both Top 100 national names: shortstop Tim Anderson, and pitcher Carson Fulmer. It’s everything A’s fans wanted, and everything they didn’t get from the Real Life Donaldson trade — blue-chip prospects at positions of need. (Remember, Marcus Semien is coming off 35 errors at shortstop and doesn’t currently look like a lock to hold that position permanently; he can always be moved elsewhere on the diamond if need be.)

Everything else about the offseason remains the same.

2016 season

The A’s are bad again, but this time it’s on purpose as they build toward a brighter future.

The big story is Anderson, who has a solid debut season in MLB. At age 23 he manages to be around average on each side of the ball, posting 2 WAR and making fans dream about the star he could become. Fulmer doesn’t yet make any impact in the majors, with just a brief cup of coffee with a bloated ERA, but he’s only 22 so there’s still time. (This paragraph is based on their real-life results.)

Semien moves to 2B, while the reacquired Jed Lowrie shifts to 3B. After all, Danny Valencia never got squeezed out of Toronto by the presence of Donaldson in 2015, so he’s still on the Blue Jays instead of being a strong hitter for the A’s. Even worse, Valencia isn’t around to punch Butler in the face after a clubhouse argument, robbing us of that wonderful memory. With Semien settling in at second, Joey Wendle and Max Muncy are still blocked and still move on to other teams before finding their own success.

June brings the amateur draft. However, since the A’s won a few extra games in 2015, they no longer pick No. 6 — the 91-loss Marlins get that spot, pushing the A’s down to seventh. Miami takes A.J. Puk, so he never falls to Oakland, and instead the A’s go for pitcher Cal Quantrill (who in real life went No. 8 to the Padres). Quantrill is a Stanford product, and his value is suppressed by TJS in college, both facts that make him a classic A’s pick.

2016-17 offseason

Decision time. The A’s have a ton of value in the infield, and they need to spread it around elsewhere on the roster. They like their budding star shortstop Anderson, and they’re ready to give Lowrie another try after injuries limited his 2016. They decide to go with Lowrie at 2B, Anderson at SS, and Ryon Healy at 3B (after his strong debut in ‘16), all with Robertson in Triple-A preparing to make the jump to the bigs in 2017 (which could allow Healy to ultimately shift to 1B/DH).

There’s no room for Semien, who is traded for pitching. But hey, on the bright side they don’t blow $5 million on Trevor Plouffe to be a two-month stopgap.

2017 season

Wuh-oh. Anderson goes in the tank. His terrible batting line is highlighted by a .276 OBP, and on defense he commits 28 errors and posts awful metrics. The A’s don’t give up on him, though, as he’s still young and talented, and he comes attached to the expectations of the Donaldson trade. He plays the whole year and keeps the job in 2018. (All of this based on his real-life results.)

Lowrie rediscovers himself and has an excellent season at 2B, as does Yonder Alonso at 1B (just as in real life). So, when Robertson gets the call it’s at third base, pushing Healy to DH. Robertson doesn’t have a great year, but at age 23 he shows just enough to keep getting playing time. Fellow top prospect Matt Chapman is looking good in Triple-A but there’s no room for him yet, so he stays in the minors to continue working on his worrisome 30.9% strikeout rate. He never makes the eye-popping MLB debut that made him almost immediately the face of the franchise.

2018 season

Robertson breaks out at the plate, pushing his OBP up to .382, his wRC+ up to 128, and his WAR into the 2-3 range, still at just age 24. Anderson (age 25) still struggles at the plate, but his defense improves dramatically and rates average on the advanced metrics, earning him plenty more leash at shortstop. Meanwhile, Lowrie makes the All-Star team at 2B. (All based on their real-life results.)

With Lowrie and Anderson entrenched at their positions, Robertson remains at 3B, and Chapman remains blocked. Plus, newly acquired 3B prospect Sheldon Neuse is hot on Chapman’s heels after a great 2017. Rather than leave him to toil in the minors, and finding themselves in legitimate postseason contention in July, the A’s cash in on Chapman’s substantial value by trading him at the deadline in a win-now move for a star rental player. They still lose the Wild Card Game to the Yankees, but hey, it was worth a shot to maximize the opportunity and all it cost them was a fully blocked prospect.

2019 season

Robertson comes back to earth (71 wRC+, negative WAR). Anderson finally pans out, though, with a 130 wRC+ and 3+ WAR — good but only about half of what the Real Life A’s got from Semien. After an impressive debut in late-2018, Chapman breaks out for his new team, whoever that may be, making A’s fans quickly regret that trade.

Meanwhile, on the pitching staff, Fulmer still hasn’t done anything. He’s seen brief action in each of the last four seasons but failed to catch on in any of them, totaling a 6.56 ERA in just under 100 frames. Quantrill makes his debut at age 24, but also struggles to a 5.16 ERA in 103 innings. (Both of these paragraphs based on their real-life results.)

Without Semien and Chapman leading the charge, the A’s miss out on the playoffs. In real life the Indians finished four games back of them, but in What If Land that margin is easily washed away and Cleveland faces Tampa Bay in the Wild Card Game.

***

Let’s sum all that up. In What If Land, the A’s were still terrible in 2015, even with Donaldson. They got a much better trade return for him after that year, but nothing that really pushed the needle too much. And that modest trade success ended up costing them more than helping them, by leading them to sell too early on Semien and Chapman. They also never got Manaea or Puk, though they do have Quantrill to show for it and the book isn’t closed on him yet (but Fulmer is looking like a bust). There’s also no J.B. Wendelken (acquired for Lawrie in real life), for whatever that’s worth.

Of course, this is something of a worst-case scenario, but none of it is unrealistic. Even in a better version where Chapman stays, at the very least they almost certainly miss out on Puk, with a strong chance of also missing out on Manaea (since I doubt they splurge on Zobrist). And if they’d picked up a shortstop in exchange for Donaldson, like all of us wanted them too, it’s hard to see how Semien gets the extensive playing time he needs to develop into an MVP candidate. No Semien means no 2019 postseason berth, and a current roster that is inferior to the one we see in real life.

All so that we could have one more year of Donaldson on a bad 2015 team. Yes, just one more year, because there is absolutely no scenario where they keep him for a rebuilding 2016, his age-30 season, coming off three straight monster years and starting to get expensive. And even if they had uncharacteristically signed him to a long-term extension, that would mean blocking (and likely trading) Chapman, who was undoubtedly the better player by 2018 and henceforth moving forward.

The Donaldson trade was bad. It was too early, they settled for a poor return package, and that package completely flopped in Oakland. As incredible as it may seem, though, things easily might have gone even worse if they hadn’t made that deal. Maybe still trading him after 2014 but for a better return would have worked out, but considering how well things have gone in real life the last couple years, I’m not sure I would go back and change anything. (Well, in retrospect, maybe start Mike Fiers in the two Wild Card Games.)

For more What If fun, check out this alternate reality from Melissa Lockard of The Athletic: What if the A’s had successfully signed Jason Giambi to an extension in 2001?