Last week the Athletics traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and minor leaguer Franklin Barreto. The trade was covered very well by Beyond the Box Score associate editor Nick Ashbourne, and I'll freely admit I don't really understand it, particularly from the standpoint of the Blue Jays.
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Donaldson is an interesting case, one of those late bloomers who performs at a high level after getting a late start. I define late bloomer as a player aged 24 or more when he amassed at least 300 plate appearances in his rookie year (defined as the year in which a player makes his 130th at-bat or 45 days on the active roster). This Google Docs spreadsheet shows the late bloomers meeting this criteria since 1970 at every position, and it's a healthy-sized list with over 500 players. There are any number of stories behind some of these players -- Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan, Carlton Fisk and Wade Boggs are Hall of Famers, Mike Piazza should be and so on.
Donaldson's route to the majors was a bumpy one. He started out as a catcher in the Cubs system and was traded to the A's in 2008 as part of a package for Rich Harden. The A's thought so highly of him to move him to third and leave him in the minors until 2010 and not give him serious playing time until 2012. They certainly haven't been disappointed since then as he's been the most valuable third baseman in baseball since 2013 by a very healthy margin.
So why trade him now? Donaldson put up this production for little more than the minimum salary and is set to receive his first real payday. He's arbitration-eligible for the next four years, and looking at his comps suggests salaries somewhere in the $6-10 million range. Of course, the Blue Jays could short-circuit the entire process and sign him to a long-term deal, but consider the aging curve for third basemen:
You can read more about aging curves in this post -- this chart shows the number of players with at least 300 PA who played at least fifty percent of games at third since 1960. Around 28, players peak and gradually begin to decline. Compared to other positions, the aging curve at third is much gentler, but it's there nonetheless, and possibly a motivating factor for Billy Beane to trade Donaldson -- perhaps he thought he'd seen Donaldson's best years and wasn't prepared to spend big money for what very well could be past performance.
In effect Beane traded a 29-year-old Donaldson (in 2015) for 25-year-old Brett Lawrie, who's also arbitration-eligible for the next four years. Lawrie is a tantalizing player, but one who can't stay healthy and hasn't had more than 500 PA in a season, which will drive his price down. If he can stay healthy (a huge "if" since players rarely get healthier as they age), he could be a steal.
Prior to the 2013 season the Blue Jays acquired Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson from the Marlins and R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole from the Mets, and in the process divested themselves of young talent like Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jake Marisnick, and Travis d'Arnaud. They're still considered to have good prospects (reach your own conclusions with data from Daren Willman's MLBfarm.com) and the addition of Donaldson could be the final piece to supplement Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista and make them competitive in the AL East. They're not particularly interested in whether Donaldson is a late-bloomer and what his long term career will look like as much as if he can help them make the playoffs in 2015.
After I finished this post but prior to it being published, this report rolled across my Twitter timeline. Sometimes, it seems, it's more than just numbers and trends.
All data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.