Four months ago, the A’s made the biggest splash of the summer, trading elite prospect Addison Russell in a package that landed them both Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. It was a clear go-for-it trade, giving up a player rated as one of the 5-10 best prospects in baseball in exchange for a short-term upgrade, as they were renting just a few months of Hammel’s services, and only getting another year and change from Samardzija. It was the kind of deal that the team would likely regret if they didn’t have a deep playoff run in either 2014 or 2015. They followed up on that aggressive stance by trading Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester, moving even more of their assets into the present at the expense of the future.
We know what happened to finish out 2014; the A’s played very poorly down the stretch, lost out in the division race to the Angels, and then saw the Royals literally outrun them in Game 163. The window that the team worked so hard to open slammed shut in their face. Lester and Hammel are both going to pitch elsewhere next year, and Jed Lowrie and Luke Gregerson are almost certainly going to find new homes this winter as well. Next year’s A’s were simply never going to look like last year’s version, and the A’s just made extra sure of that by trading away their best player, third baseman Josh Donaldson.
On the surface, it’s easy to look at this move and think that it suggests the A’s are switching back into a build-for-the-future mode. Beane’s post-trade comments even suggest that this is perhaps the right interpretation of this trade. From MLB.com’s Jane Lee:
— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) November 29, 2014
I don’t buy the 11 game difference thing, given that the A’s and Angels project to run nearly dead even next year, but the last few words of that quote are pretty interesting. Beane looked at this team and saw a roster in decline. He wanted to change that, and the primary way you go from decline to incline in baseball is to get younger. This deal absolutely makes the A’s younger.
Donaldson turns 29 next week; Brett Lawrie turns 25 in January. In the baseball timeline, four years is an eternity, especially these particular four years. Historically, player’s peak ages have been in their late-20s, meaning Donaldson is probably just headed out of his peak, while Lawrie is theoretically headed into his. Swapping Donaldson for Lawrie absolutely makes the A’s worse in 2015, but it does change the trajectory of one of the team’s core pieces; there is a decent likelihood that Lawrie’s best days are in front of him, while Donaldson’s are most likely behind him.
In some sense, this is a version of buying low and selling high. As I mused on Twitter, this deal would have been seen as completely insane for Toronto just two years ago, when Lawrie looked like a franchise cornerstone while Donaldson was a 26 year old who spent most of the year in the PCL, then didn’t hit much in the big leagues when given a shot. Lawrie’s stock has since fallen fairly rapidly, while perhaps no in baseball has done more to raise their stature in the last 24 months than Donaldson.
We absolutely want to weight recent information the most heavily, and the last few years suggest that Donaldson is indeed an elite player, but we should at least keep in mind that it wasn’t that long ago that the consensus was that Lawrie might be a future superstar as well. While his star has faded, it seems likely that we shouldn’t completely discount the idea of Lawrie yet turning into what he was supposed to be, or at least some version closer to that mark than he’s shown to date. It’s easy to look at the last few years and see this as a major downgrade for the A’s, but perhaps the step backwards isn’t quite as large as it might appear at first glance.
After all, when Lawrie has been on the field, he’s actually been quite good. He’s at +7.9 WAR in 1,431 career plate appearances, or an average of +3.4 WAR per 600 PAs. Guys who can perform at an above average level from 21-24 often turn into stars from 25-28, and age is the primary reason why Steamer is very bullish on Lawrie as a hitter for 2015, projecting him for a 115 wRC+. Toss in the defensive value, and on a per-600 plate appearance basis, Steamer actually sees Lawrie as a +4 WAR player. That projection makes him essentially the equal of Kyle Seager — again, this is assuming equal playing time, which is not a good assumption based on their past health records — and Seager just got a $100 million extension with the same level of service time as Lawrie has now.
Lawrie’s talent isn’t really the question here. The A’s are essentially betting on him figuring out how to avoid the disabled list, which is not something he’s been able to do in the big leagues. Health is a skill, and we can’t just pretend that his injuries didn’t happen; if he had stayed healthy, the Jays wouldn’t have traded him, most likely. But while no team has as much information about Lawrie’s medical condition as the Blue Jays do, it does seem like everyone involved in baseball is better at projecting future performance than future health. Perhaps Lawrie is just Nick Johnson 2.0, a talented player who can’t stay on the field to live up to his potential, but I don’t know how confident of that we can be.
The A’s are unquestionably taking on more risk in this deal, but they’re probably getting more upside as well. If Lawrie can beat the injury problem, it’s not too difficult to see him as a +4 to +5 win third baseman over the next three years; Donaldson is already at that level, but probably can’t stay there for too much longer, especially given how much of his value is tied to his glove, which generally peaks earlier. If we stipulate that both Lawrie and Donaldson stay reasonably healthy going forward, I might even prefer Lawrie for 2016 and 2017, even though he’s an inferior player right now. We can’t stipulate that Lawrie will stay healthy, but in looking at the trade, we should at least see the chance that the A’s actually didn’t get that much worse by swapping these two.
Of course, there’s also a very large chance that the A’s got a lot worse, trading a player who projects for +5 WAR in 2015 for a guy who might very well spend most of next year on the DL. If Lawrie can’t stay healthy, this is a huge step back for the A’s, and might just sink their chances of contending entirely. But, like with Boston signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval when they already had too many hitters, this feels like the first move of a series of moves, and I expect that this deal might make more sense when the series is completed.
Jeff Sullivan floated perhaps the most fascinating scenario, suggesting that maybe the A’s were willing to move Donaldson in preparation for a run at free agent third baseman Chase Headley. If you buy into Steamer’s projections, Headley is the bargain of the winter, a potential +4 WAR player of his own who is probably looking at something in the range of 4/$60M. The A’s have very little money on the books long-term, and it’s at least possible that this trade be a precursor to Oakland trying to sign Headley; Lawrie would shift to second base under this scenario.
The A’s have a gaping hole in the middle infield, and the crop of available free agents is pretty terrible, but signing Headley and using Lawrie to cover second base is an intriguing option. Would the combined production of the two be significantly worse than if the A’s had kept Donaldson and signed a free agent middle infielder like Asdrubal Cabrera instead?
For reference, the crowd expects Cabrera to sign for 3/$33M this winter, and Steamer projects +1.4 WAR in 2015 value. Combining Donaldson’s $5 million arbitration projected salary with Cabrera’s $11 million AAV, the pair would cost $16 million and be expected to produce roughly +7 WAR between them. If the A’s signed Headley for the 4/$60M that the crowd projected, and combined that with Lawrie’s $2 million arbitration salary, that pair would cost $17 million and be expected to produce +7 WAR between them. That assumes Lawrie stays healthy and Headley bounces back to his career average batting line, so there’s no question that the second scenario involves far more risk, but it is an avenue to a 2015 team that might not be markedly worse than one in which they had kept Donaldson.
Granted, there are better second base options than signing Cabrera for $33 million, and we’d expect the A’s to be one of the teams to find a better value at the position. But then, we’d have expected them to find a better value than Billy Butler for $30 million too, and that signing at least should give us pause before we decide that the Donaldson trade means that the A’s are entering another rebuilding phase. The Butler contract suggests the A’s are trying to win in 2015; it seems unlikely that they decided to switch gears in the last week.
Lawrie’s flexibility to potentially play second base makes this move a bit more interesting than if we see this as a straight 3B for 3B (and prospects) trade, because it opens up some doors for the A’s to improve their 2015 team that weren’t there a few hours ago. We can’t assume that Oakland will easily sign Headley or in some other way acquire a +3 to +4 WAR third baseman that could offset the loss of Donaladson, but like with Lawrie’s upside, we should at least acknowledge that it’s possible.
More likely, someone will outbid the A’s for Headley. More likely, Lawrie doesn’t get 600 plate appearances for the first time in his career in 2015. More likely, this deal makes the A’s quite a bit worse next season, which is why the Blue Jays had to kick in three prospects to get Oakland to make the deal.
But like with Boston’s moves, I feel like there’s another shoe to drop here, and I don’t really want to evaluate this deal solely on the basis of this single transaction. If this was the end of the A’s offseason, I don’t think I’d like this very much, as it pushes them back towards the middle of the pack in a year in which they should be trying to win. But this isn’t the end of the A’s offseason, and this trade created some potential avenues for upgrades that could still be explored.
Maybe adding two more Major League ready arms to the stable allows them to trade Jeff Samardzija for a long-term answer at shortstop. Maybe they know that the Phillies love Franklin Barreto, and he’s going to lead a package of talent going to Philadelphia for Chase Utley. With glaring holes at second base and shortstop, it’s very difficult to imagine that this trade isn’t a setup for some other maneuver. Replacing Donaldson is going to be essentially impossible, but it’s not impossible for the A’s to end up with a 2015 infield that is as nearly as good as it would have been with Dondaldson and the acquirable alternatives.
We don’t know what the A’s are thinking of doing next, and it is certainly within reason to just take this move at face value. If this is step one of a rebuild, and Samardzija gets traded for another bushel of prospects who won’t help the 2015 A’s, then the team’s moves over the last four months will look highly questionable. But I guess I’m not entirely convinced that’s the plan yet. If they end up using the flexibility that this trade gives them — either by using Lawrie at second or flipping the prospects acquired to land a significant middle infield upgrade — then perhaps the 2015 A’s won’t be that much worse for having made this trade.
And if Lawrie can figure out how to stay healthy enough to even play 130-140 games per season, he might very well be more valuable than Donaldson over the next three years. That they had to give up a fourth year of Donaldson’s team control, and take on all the extra risks associated with the hypotheticals listed above, means that this doesn’t seem like a home run trade for the A’s. It’s a gamble, and maybe too big of a gamble without having firm backup plans in place. But I see enough ways this could work for the A’s that I don’t hate this for them. Not yet.
I reserve the right to retroactively hate this deal if they don’t do anything else to make their 2015 team better this winter. But if this is just the first move in a series, then I’d like to see what those moves are before I pass judgment on this one.
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