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Trade Retrospective: Athletics shockingly trade Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays

In the interest of long term sustainability, the A’s somehow sold low on one of the best players in baseball.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

For the fifth straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

Early in the 2014 offseason, the Athletics executed a trade that shocked the baseball world, as they decided to trade Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie and three prospects: Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Franklin Barreto.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

As I discussed in the retrospective on Jeff Samardzija trade, the A’s suffered a collapse in the second half of the 2014 season after said trade, losing their hold on the division and bowing out of the playoffs in the Wild Card game. Still, there was little reason to believe they could not continue to be competitive in 2015, which makes trading away Donaldson all the more bizarre.

Donaldson was coming off his second full season in the majors, and he had already established himself as one of the league’s best, thanks in part to a positional change from catcher to third base. Over those two seasons he hit .277/.363/.477 with elite defense, making him worth a whopping 15.2 WAR combined.

One could argue that Donaldson being a late-bloomer made it so that he was entering his age-29 season, but it was unlikely that his performance was going to fall off a cliff. Thanks to his outstanding glove he had a high floor, one that could make him a 3-4 win player even if his wOBA dropped 50 points. It is crazy to think of trading away such a player that still had four years left on his rookie deal.

The problem from the A’s perspective was that Donaldson was Super Two eligible, meaning he qualified for arbitration a year early. He would still be vastly underpaid compared to what he was providing on the field, and the team was still competitive, so it was not like they needed to move him in order to jump start a rebuild. It was just ownership being cheap.

As I have said before and will continue to say: there is no reason to believe that a team can’t afford a player unless they open up their books. The A’s have benefited from selling a narrative that they can only get by on low payrolls, but it’s just that, a narrative, and we don’t have any real financial evidence this is true.

The Blue Jays were coming off yet another season of missing the playoffs, the league’s longest drought at the time, as the team had not made it to the postseason since they won the 1993 World Series. They were not too far off in 2014, though, having won 83 games and missing the playoffs by five games. They were in a position where adding wins could lead to big results.

Third base was not an especially weak area for the Jays. Brett Lawrie was not a bad player by any means, but he was a mediocre hitter at best, who had trouble staying healthy. Even a regressed Donaldson could be a significant upgrade, and peak Donaldson could add at least six wins to this ball club.

Barreto was a long way from being major league ready, and Nolin and Graveman were solid prospects but ones who lacked much upside. Only Barreto cracked Keith Law’s top 100 prospects later that winter, and only barely. I am sure that the A’s thought they could turn these guys into more than they were expected to be, but this is a very underwhelming return for a player of Donaldson’s caliber.

I can’t believe the Blue Jays were able to get four years of Josh Donaldson without having to part with any of their best prospects, such as Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, or Aaron Sánchez. Honestly, though, they could have thrown in those three guys and I still would have said no if I were Billy Beane. Sure enough, the A’s would regret this move.

The Results

You know what happened. Donaldson put up the best season of his career and won the AL MVP. He hit .297/.371/.568 with 41 HR and led the league with 352 total bases. His continued fielding excellence combined with his 154 wRC+ resulted in 8.5 WAR.

The Blue Jays finally were able to end their postseason drought, winning 93 games and coming in first in the AL East. They made it to the ALCS where they were eliminated in six games by the eventual World Champion Royals. They made back to the postseason in 2016, albeit through the Wild Card that time, succeeding in making it to the ALCS again, but were eliminated by the Indians in five games. The Blue Jays have not been back to the postseason since.

Donaldson continued to be outstanding in 2016 and 2017, but injuries started to catch up with him. He played in only 36 games in 2018, his contract year, before the Jays traded him to Cleveland, where he played in only 16 games. Thankfully he was able to regain his value on a one-year pillow contract with the Braves, and this winter he signed a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins.

The A’s continued to sell later that winter after trading away Donaldson, and finished in last place for three consecutive seasons. They did win 97 games in each of the last two seasons, but it had little to do with the players they acquired.

Lawrie continued to disappoint in Oakland. He had a .299 OBP in 2015 because he still was not taking enough walks, though he did have his healthiest season ever, playing in 149 games. One of his strongest skills was his ability to make contact, but his strikeout rates went up substantially. The A’s decided to trade him to the White Sox after the 2015 season where he was not any better. The White Sox cut him before the 2017 season, effectively ending his major league career.

Barreto made his major league debut in 2017, but he has not seen much major league action since then. He has played in only 80 games over the past three seasons, and he has simply not been a major league quality player. His career batting line is .189/.220/.378.

Nolin’s A’s career was very short. He made only six starts and had a 5.90 RA9. The A’s designated him for assignment the following offseason, and he ended up bouncing around on various minor league deals. In December, he signed a deal to play in the NPB.

Graveman was actually pretty solid for the A’s, at least during his first three seasons with them. He was more or less the back end starter he was expected to be, with a 4.29 RA9 over 71 starts in those first three seasons, including a 3.5 WAR season in 2016. Unfortunately, everything fell apart for him in 2018. He made only seven starts and was disastrous. He had an 8.39 RA9 before missing the rest of the season due to Tommy John surgery, leading to the A’s non-tendering him. He has not appeared in the majors since, but he is currently one a one-year deal with the Mariners.

Blue Jay’s Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Josh Donaldson 4 21.6
Baseball Reference

It doesn’t get any better than that. This doesn’t even include the MVP award or the value behind snapping a huge postseason drought. I doubt we are going to see better results than that in this year’s Trade Retrospective.

A’s Results

Remaining Control WAR
Remaining Control WAR
Brett Lawrie 3 2.2
Franklin Barreto 6 -0.7
Sean Nolin 6 -0.3
Kendall Graveman 6 5.4
Total 21 6.6
Baseball Reference

Yeah, that’s not what you want. Lawrie failed to develop further, and two out of the three prospects were busts. Graveman was productive, but only for three years and only as a back end starter.

The lesson here is that you just don’t trade your superstars when you still need them, and certainly not unless you get a king’s ransom in prospects coming back to you. Speaking of which, the Red Sox should have paid attention to history before doing the same thing, even though Mookie Betts had just one year left on his contract as opposed to four. Unless the league starts addressing the broken economics of the system, teams will likely continue to make these types of trades.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.