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Final connection to Josh Donaldson trade is gone

The trade tree is officially over

Zack Erwin now pitches in the Rays org
Photo provided by Meghan Camino and the Stockton Ports

The Tampa Bay Rays signed left-handed pitcher Zack Erwin to a minor league contract, reported Erwin himself in a tweet Wednesday.

This is relevant to Oakland A’s fans because Erwin spent the last six seasons in the A’s farm system, reaching as high as Triple-A Las Vegas in 2021.

But what’s especially notable about this news is how Erwin arrived here in the first place, and what his departure symbolizes. The Josh Donaldson trade tree is officially finished.

When the A’s infamously traded Donaldson to the Blue Jays in November of 2014, they got four players back from Toronto. The group included third baseman Brett Lawrie, pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and top shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto. All four are long gone, but two of them exited in new trades that returned more players. Erwin was the last of that second wave, none of whom brought back any further acquisitions.

Of the original trade package, Nolin was claimed away off waivers the following winter and Graveman walked away as a free agent after 2018, leaving Oakland empty-handed in both cases. Barreto never panned out, and was dealt to the Angels during the 2020 season for a two-month rental of Tommy La Stella, who subsequently left as a free agent.

As for Lawrie, he played one year for the A’s in 2015, then was traded to the White Sox the next winter. In return, Oakland got a pair of pitching prospects. One was J.B. Wendelken, who appeared in five MLB seasons here but was DFA’d last summer and lost on waivers. The other was Erwin, who since then has worked his way from Low-A up to Triple-A, and now he’s gone too.

The whole thing worked out poorly for the A’s. They received only a smattering of value in the swap, while Donaldson remained a star for years in Toronto, winning an MVP and making two trips to the ALCS. (If it makes you feel better, it might have gone even worse if they hadn’t traded him.)

Here’s a visual representation, in case the written version didn’t make you sad enough already.

Technically, Erwin’s branch of the tree ended when he became a free agent in November, but now he’s gone by any measure. Wendelken also cleared waivers once before in 2016.

Now that it’s all over, what did the A’s get for Donaldson?

The biggest contributor in terms of playing time was Graveman, who made 78 starts over four seasons from 2015-18. His best year was 2016, when he led an injury-plagued rotation with 186 innings of league-average work over 31 starts, which was enough to earn Team Cy Young honors from Athletics Nation. Tommy John surgery ended his tenure here, but he’s now resurfaced elsewhere as a star reliever.

  • Graveman, OAK: 441⅓ ip, 4.38 ERA, 93 ERA+, 4.58 FIP, 5.5 bWAR, 3.1 fWAR

Next up was Wendelken, who was a consistent part of the bullpen during the latest window of contention. He briefly debuted in 2016 but missed the next year to TJS, then returned in 2018 and settled in as a reliable middle/long reliever, though he never quite rose to the role of full-time setup man. From 2018-20 he posted a 2.30 ERA and 3.03 FIP in 74⅓ innings (61 games), including an 0.54 ERA in 13 games in 2018. Perhaps his biggest highlight came in the 2020 postseason, when he tossed a perfect 6th inning in Game 3 of the Wild Card Series to hold the lead en route to an A’s series-clinching victory.

  • Wendelken, OAK: 112 ip, 3.62 ERA, 117 ERA+, 3.57 FIP, 1.4 bWAR, 1.4 fWAR
  • Wendelken, postseason: 4 games, 4⅔ ip, 6 runs (2 earned), 1 hold, 1 blown

Also chipping in was La Stella, who played as well as hoped for during his short stint here in 2020. His 27 games weren’t enough to rack up a lot of WAR, but his high-contact bat helped the team wrap up a division title, and then in the playoffs he was one of their most reliable hitters and also made a highlight catch on defense.

  • La Stella, OAK: 111 PAs, .289/.369/.423, 124 wRC+, 0.4 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR
  • La Stella, postseason: 8-for-27, HR, double, 2 RBI, 5 runs, 2 BB, HBP, 3 Ks

Oakland didn’t find their third baseman of the future in Lawrie, but he did at least play one full year here in 2015. It wasn’t a good year, on offense or defense, but it was worth a little above replacement level. He hit 16 homers! But also had a night when he struck out four times on 12 straight pitches.

  • Lawrie, OAK: 602 PAs, .260/.299/.407, 94 wRC+, 1.7 bWAR, 0.9 fWAR

We had high hopes for Barreto, who topped our Community Prospect List entering 2017 and placed No. 2 on the list in three other years, also ranking Top 100 nationally each time. But his bat never made the jump to the majors in a series of cameos over four summers from 2017-20, striking out 92 times in 219 plate appearances (42%). Still, he had his moments, like making MLB history with his first career homer, and blasting a walk-off dinger on July 4, among his nine career long balls. And we all got to spend a half-decade endlessly discussing him, so perhaps the real trade return was the friends we made along the way.

  • Barreto, OAK: 219 PAs, .180/.210/.360, 50 wRC+, -0.7 bWAR, -0.6 fWAR

Unfortunately, Nolin only made six starts for the A’s in 2015 before injuries set in. He didn’t appear in pro ball again until 2018, but he did finally make it back to the majors with the Nationals last summer.

  • Nolin, OAK: 29 ip, 5.28 ERA, 75 ERA+, 5.13 FIP, -0.5 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR

As for Erwin, he never quite reached the bigs, though it’s not too late entering age 28. He was always a sleeper rather than a top prospect, but he put up good numbers most years including in the upper minors, and he made some adjustments to ramp up his strikeouts the past couple seasons.

  • Erwin, 2021 AAA: 3.32 ERA, 19 ip, 23 Ks, 9 BB, 1 HR, 3.77 FIP

He’s a decent Triple-A lotto ticket, and being signed by Tampa Bay is an endorsement in itself, but it’s common for longtime minor leaguers to shuffle around and change scenery like this. What makes this move most interesting is the Donaldson context.

Add it up, and Oakland racked up 7.8 bWAR or 5.5 fWAR of value from the whole group. Of course, Donaldson went on to win the 2015 MVP, and over the next four seasons for Toronto he totaled 116 homers, 19.5 bWAR, and 22.2 fWAR, plus another four dingers and a 1.000 OPS in 20 postseason games. Injuries cost him most of his final year with the Jays, but they still managed to flip him to Cleveland for a prospect (pitcher Julian Merryweather) who is now in their MLB bullpen.

How bad was it? According to John Bitzer of Baseball Trade Values, Oakland lost slightly over $100 million in value in this deal.

And now the book is closed, on the A’s side at least. Zack Erwin is gone, and the final branch of the tree has withered.

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