A's trading Josh Donaldson to Blue Jays signals shift toward rebuilding

0:45 | MLB
A's trading Josh Donaldson marks shift toward rebuilding
Saturday November 29th, 2014

The Toronto Blue Jays just acquired one of the best players in baseball. They obtained All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson from the A’s for fellow infielder Brett Lawrie and a trio of prospects, including starting pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman, both of whom cracked the majors in 2014, and teenage shortstop Franklin Barreto. The trade is a shocker that effectively signals a rebuild on the part of the A’s, as Donaldson, an elite defensive third baseman with power and patience at the plate, has been their best player over the last two years. As for Toronto, the trade is further evidence that the Blue Jays are determined to seize what they see as a window of opportunity in the AL East.

It’s not impossible to see why the A’s made Donaldson available. He’ll turn 29 in early December and is due for a huge raise in arbitration, which he is eligible for the first time this winter. Those seem like minor points compared to his value on the field, however. Arguably the best fielding third baseman in baseball other than Manny Machado (that's if Machado can sustain his performance with his surgically repaired knees), Donaldson has hit 53 home runs with a .200 isolated slugging over the last two years despite playing his home games in Oakland’s cavernous Coliseum. He also has drawn 145 unintentional walks over the last two seasons for a combined .277/.363/.477 line, which translates to a 135 OPS+ after correcting for his home ballpark.

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That 135 OPS+ is the 17th-best in baseball among players with 1,000 or more plate appearances over the last two seasons. Eliminate first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders from that list and Donaldson moves up to sixth, behind Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre,and Buster Posey. That’s the kind of company Donaldson has kept these past two seasons, which is remarkable given that as recently as July 2012 he was a 26-year-old minor league catcher still trying to prove he was viable both at third base and in the major leagues. It wasn’t until being called back up from Triple-A on August 14 of that year that he staked his claim to the A’s third-base job, hitting .290/.356/.489 over the final 48 games of that season, a performance he has since proven was not a fluke.

Moving Donaldson from the Coliseum to the Rogers Centre should give his numbers a significant boost, as the Blue Jays’ home stadium ranked as the friendliest American League ballpark for right-handed power hitters over the last three years, according to the park factors in the 2014 Bill James Handbook. Look no further than Donaldson’s new teammates Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to see evidence of how the stadium can help a right-handed hitter inflate his numbers.

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The Blue Jays can now line those three mashers up in a row in their order with Jose Reyes on top and catcher Russell Martin to follow, but as impressive as those five stars may be in the order, they do not make the Blue Jays a clear contender. The other half of the lineup remains wide open, with holes at first base (Justin Smoak?), second base (Maicer Izturis?), centerfield (rookie Dalton Pompey?), and left field (Andy Dirks?). Rumors point to the Blue Jays’ next move being an attempt to re-sign Melky Cabrera to fill left field. However, there are several other teams interested in Cabrera, who is suddenly one of the top free agent position players remaining and who would prefer to play his home games on grass rather than Roger Centre’s turf, according to multiple reports.

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The Blue Jays moved to fortify their rotation by trading first baseman Adam Lind to Milwaukee for Marco Estrada, but the Jays are a team more in need of an ace than another mid-rotation arm like Estrada. With veteran horses Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, sophomore Marcus Stroman and 24-year-old Drew Hutchison, Estrada, top prospect Aaron Sanchez (who excelled in relief in his major league debut this past season), fellow prospect Daniel Norris (who also made his debut in 2014) and veteran filler J.A. Happ, the Blue Jays have plenty of arms to fill out their 2015 rotation. What they lack, is the true number-one they had hoped Dickey, Buehrle or Josh Johnson would become when they acquired them prior to the 2013 season. Beyond that, Toronto’s closer of the last three years, Casey Janssen, is currently a free agent, leaving the bullpen headless and in need of reinforcement, some of which may come from the rotation overflow.

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Thus while Toronto has added two tremendously valuable players this winter in Donaldson and Martin, they are a long way from being a complete team that can be expected to contend even in the weakened AL East in 2015. However, their aggressive approach so far suggests that they will remain a team to watch this offseason, and may just get to where they want to be by the time pitchers and catchers report in February.

As for what they gave up, the most familiar name is Canadian native Brett Lawrie, a former first-round pick and top prospect in the Brewers’ organization who was acquired by the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum in December 2010. Lawrie  made a spectacular debut in late 2011, he has struggled to live up to his early billing and performance, while also struggling to stay on the field. Lawrie hit .293/.373/.580 with nine home runs in his first 171 major league plate appearances in 2011, but has hit just .261/.316/.406 across three seasons since, averaging just 11 home runs and 101 games played a year. Lawrie lost 41 games to an ankle sprain in 2013 and 36 games to a finger fractured by a pitch this past season, but those are footnotes compared to what are proving to be chronic oblique strains.

Lawrie has hit the disabled list due to an oblique strain in each of the last three seasons causing him to miss a total of 91 regular season games. Lawrie, who has experience at third and second base, won’t turn 25 until January. He still has ton of talent, but he, too, is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter. Lawrie will be a free agent a year before Donaldson, who is a Super Two player and thus has four team-controlled years remaining. Lawrie did add power each of the last two years, but the Coliseum should reverse that trend and there haven’t been many other encouraging signs from Lawrie, a hot-headed player who may actually play the game too hard. (Note for A’s fans who are bidding farewell to Jed Lowrie, Lawrie is pronounce “LOR-ee.”)

As for the pitchers, Sean Nolin is a big lefty with unspectacular stuff who will turn 25 the day after Christmas and has thrown a total of 2 1/3 major league innings over the last two seasons. He gets good marks for his mound approach, but projects as a back-end starter. Kendall Graveman is a righty sinker-baller who will turn 24 on Dec. 21. A middle-round pick in 2013, he shot from A ball to the majors in 2014, playing at five different levels with good results across the board and a classic pitch-to-contact groundball approach. It’s difficult to get too much of a read on him given he has never made more than 16 starts in any one place except High A. Graveman figures to be another back-end rotation option for the A’s in the near term.

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The gem in this deal for Oakland is Franklin Barreto, a pint-sized Venezuelan shortstop who won’t turn 19 until late-February. Barreto put up very impressive numbers in his full-season debut for Vancouver in the Northwest League this past season, hitting .311/.384/.481 in 328 plate appearances with 29 steals at an 85 percent success rate. He did all of that at the age of 18 in a league largely populated by 21-year-olds. There’s a ton of potential there, but the fact that Barreto is still very raw and far away from the major leagues is a good indication of the message the A’s are sending with this trade.

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The A’s went all-in in July by trading star Yoenis Cespedes and top prospect Addison Russell, a near-ready shortstop, among others for pitchers Jon Lester, now a free agent, Jeff Samardzija, rumored to also be on the trading block, and Jason Hammel, also a free agent. They then finished the season with a 16-30 (.348) record after August 9, turning a four-game lead in the AL West into a one-and-done exit in the Wild Card Game.

Now, the A’s are signaling a lack of confidence in the team they have left. With Donaldson following Cespedes and Russell out the door and the teenaged Barreto being the most significant part of the return, the A’s appear to be entering a rebuilding stage. The result is likely a lost 2015 season that will give spring-2014 Tommy John patients Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin time to get back to full strength and that will find the A’s papering over the holes in their lineup with the likes of Billy Butler, Ike Davis (purchased from the Pirates over the weekend), and the fragile Lowrie. The question at this point isn’t so much who the A’s will add next. It's who will they trade next and whether or not they will be able to emerge from this rebuilding phase quickly enough to stay ahead of the Mariners, Rangers and Astros in their division for the foreseeable future.

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