Put as simply as possible, the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics just pulled off a trade that has more angles than a dodecahedron.
The A's parted with a legitimate (albeit unheralded) franchise player in his prime with four years of team control remaining; in return, they got themselves a package of very interesting young talent. If you wisely were not glued to your Twitter on a Friday night, then you might have missed the exact details of the transaction, so here it is:
The @BlueJays have acquired JOSH DONALDSON from the Oakland Athletics for BRETT LAWRIE, SEAN NOLIN, KENDALL GRAVEMAN and FRANKLIN BARRETO.— Blue Jays-Official (@BlueJays) November 29, 2014
There is a lot to take in here, so let's go piece-by-piece.
What are the Blue Jays getting?
Josh Donaldson (four years of control at arbitration prices)- By fWAR, Donaldson has been the third-most valuable position player in baseball over the last two years, behind only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. Players like that rarely become available on the trade market, especially if they are relatively cheap (MLBTR projects Donaldson to cost $4.5 million this season) and far from free agency. While the 28-year-old is on track to become more expensive through arbitration, he remains likely to have a great deal of surplus value. In fact, Dave Cameron ranked him as baseball's 17th-most valuable trade chip in July.
Donaldson's late-career breakout creates a bit more uncertainty about his production going forward than there is for many players of a similar age, but the Blue Jays' offense is built on late-breakout guys, and two 6+ WAR seasons in a row should put any doubts about Donaldson's true talent to rest.
The Jays will control their new third baseman through his early decline years, but he projects to be an All-Star-caliber performer for at least the next two seasons. Steamer projects a 125 wRC+ in 2015, paired with elite defense for a WAR total of 5.5.
Long story short, Donaldson is a stud.
What are the Athletics getting?
Brett Lawrie (three years of control at arbitration prices): Lawrie is a very difficult player to figure out. He flashed incredible offensive potential in his rookie season, putting together a .293/.373/.580 line and looked to be a player the Blue Jays could build around. Over the next three seasons he has been simultaneously productive and disappointing.
Since 2012 Lawrie's .261/.316/.406 line is acceptable, but far from special. Sometimes he has looked like a great hitter; other times, he has looked like a lost ground ball machine. He has been maddeningly inconsistent, which results in very ordinary production that seems underwhelming, considering his strength, athleticism, and moments of brilliance. At 24, he's young enough that his hitting could improve, but he's old enough that it's unfair to count on it too heavily. The good news for Oakland is that even if he is average at the plate, he is a good player because he's an asset in the field.
However, to be an asset in the field, he needs to stay on it: Lawrie has only played in 302 games over the last three seasons. While some of his injuries have been freak occurrences, sometimes brought on by his max-max-max effort playing style, he has had multiple oblique issues. Moving away from turf could help, but once again that's no guarantee.
Overall, Lawrie is an interesting kind of gamble. His defensive prowess gives him a high floor, and he does have some offensive upside. He could be a poor man's Donaldson, but quite a lot cheaper. Alternatively, he could be a constantly injured disappointment. More likely than not, he'll be an above-average starter that doesn't hit quite as much as you want and misses more time than you'd like.
His frenetic playing style will make him a fan favorite when he and/or the team is playing well, and a huge annoyance when things are going sideways. Taking on Brett Lawrie is embracing a fun but bumpy ride.
Franklin Barreto (six years of team control): Barreto is probably the make-or-break piece in this deal for Oakland. This season the 18-year-old destroyed the Short-Season A Northwest league, hitting .311/.384/.481 against competition that was more than three years older than him on average. It is somewhat uncertain where Barreto winds up on the diamond, but the most likely scenarios appear to be second base or center field.
Barreto's hit tool and speed are his trademarks, and he has the the production to match that scouting report. It is very difficult to make realistic big-league projections for teenagers, but the Venezualan prospect has potential to be an everyday player. If he does, Oakland probably gets good value from this deal. Working with a relatively limited payroll, the Athletics need to search for high-quality young players at every opportunity, and I doubt they make this deal if they didn't think very highly of Barreto.
Sean Nolin (six years of team control): Nolin is more "cheap young left-handed arm" than "big-time prospect", but that's just fine. He's gotten by on good command and uninspiring stuff and has had quite a lot of success at the minor league level. The southpaw turns 25 in December, and it's time to see what he can do at in the major leagues.
Nolin is a classic low-upside, low-downside type of guy, The Blue Jays saw him as a depth piece, and that's likely what he'll be in Oakland. With Oakland's pitcher-friendly park and respectable outfield defense, he may even blossom into a back-end starter. Considering he's not arbitration eligible until 2018, there's plenty of value in that.
Kendall Graveman (six years of team control): In a lot of ways, Graveman is the wildcard here. Coming into the 2014 season he was an afterthought, but he suddenly discovered a cutter and began dominating the minor leagues. He still remains a longshot to be a starter in the majors due to lack of an out pitch (he didn't have a K/9 that exceeded six above Low-A last season), but he's an intriguing breakout to buy in on by the Athletics as a toss-in piece.
If his cutter is for real, maybe he's a guy the A's can use down the road. If not, it was worth a try.
So, why did this happen?
Clearly, the Blue Jays are all in on competing for a playoff spot as soon as possible. This makes sense, considering that their core is aging and lineup mainstays Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are only under team control through 2016. The Jays have a lot of good young pitchers, but there was no way to be sure that they'd develop in time for the team to capitalize on the remaining prime years of their powerful Dominican duo.
Even though the team didn't really need a third baseman, or another right-handed power bat, they saw an opportunity to acquire a great player who would improve the team. The Jays have made two impact acquisitions this offseason, and neither of them have been at positions of dire need.
As far as the Athletics are concerned, the team decided to cash in its most valuable trade chip for some quality young players. Donaldson is only getting older, more expensive, and in all likelihood worse; if they were going to trade him, there was no time like the present. Increased financial flexibility is always valuable to Oakland, as is young, controllable talent, and the team got both in spades with this deal.
The Blue Jays win this trade if....
Josh Donaldson from 2015-2018 is anything like the one from 2013-2014. Ending the largest playoff drought in the sport would also make this a win, but it's hard to pin that on a single trade.
The Blue Jays lose this trade if...
Donaldson goes into a steep decline, and/or Brett Lawrie becomes the star that the team was so hopeful he could be. If Barreto goes on to become an All-Star second baseman and the Jays continue to play absolutely epic scrubs at the position for years to come, that would also hurt for Jays fans.
The Athletics win this trade if...
Brett Lawrie stays healthy and begins to wield a consistently solid bat, and Barreto turns into something worthwhile. Even if Barreto flames out, if Lawrie steps up and either of the arms surprise this deal could still be OK for them.
The Athletics lose this trade if...
Lawrie cannot stay on the field, Barreto producing nothing, and neither arm exceeds expectations.
Ultimately, it's far too simplistic to describe this trade in binary win-loss terms. Both teams could easily get value out of the deal. It'll take years to sort this one out, but for the time being, it's pretty damn interesting. You don't see a player of Donaldson's quality moved in this way very often, and it's also fairly surprising to see the Blue Jays ship off a "local kid"* who is arguably worth more to them than any other team.
*While Brett Lawrie is often characterized as a Blue Jays local kid because he's Canadian, he actually grew up 3,330 km (or 2069 miles) away from Toronto. Apparently, Canada is a big country.
On a day that is legendary for its absolutely insane deals, Alex Anthopoulos and Billy Beane may have pulled off the craziest one of all.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.