Tonight, Oakland Athletics’ 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson was traded to the Blue Jays in a five-player deal that sent Brett Lawrie and three prospects the opposite way. This comes as a surprise to the baseball universe, as Donaldson is one of baseball’s premier all-around players
A surprise… to most people, at least. Amid early speculation from A’s beat writer Susan Slusser that it was actually Jeff Samardzija who was going to be moved — which was later debunked — I halfheartedly, half-jokingly tweeted:
The A’s wouldn’t trade Josh Donaldson, would they? They probably would.
— Eric Reining (@ericreining) November 29, 2014
The moral to the story: Nothing Billy Beane does surprises me. He is utterly incapable.
By now we’re familiar with the A’s narrative beneath the shrewd control of Beane; he trades his best players when they get expensive through arbitration, nets a club’s best prospects, inevitably gets them developed into his next wave of best players, trades them when they get expensive for another club’s best prospects, and repeats the process.
This is not that.
Josh Donaldson is not only one of the elite 3rd basemen in MLB, he’s one of the best players, period. Over the last two seasons only MVPs Mike Trout (+18.3 fWAR) and Andrew McCutchen (+15.0 fWAR) have generated more Wins Above Replacement than Donaldson has (+14.1) according to FanGraphs, but what’s more perplexing is the fact that, while Trout and McCutchen are signed to healthy nine-figure contracts, Josh will only be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. If we guesstimate that each individual WAR is valued around $6 million (which is probably low), it suggests Josh Donaldson has been worth a robust $84.6 million in the last two seasons alone; in 2015 he is projected to earn a mere $4.5 million, roughly 11% of his seven-win average over the last two years.
This is what doesn’t make sense, at least according to the history of Billy Beane. In the past he pays him the $4.5 million and the $8 million or so Donaldson would make through arbitration in 2016. His value on that field dwarfs over such a low figure.
This is further confused by the prospect haul Oakland received from the Blue Jays. Per Keith Law (Insider required), [Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos] added one of the best players in baseball for a package of prospects that doesn’t quite add up. Law describes middle infielder, Franklin Barreto, having a bat that could one day play in the majors, and two pitchers — Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman — that project more as back-end starters down the road.
The A’s traded one of the best players in Major League Baseball for a three-win downgrade at 3rd base (Brett Lawrie), a high-upside teenage middle infielder and two future back-of-the-rotation starting pitchers.
Baseball has changed an indescribable amount over the last ten years. Billy Beane has adapted with the times, though he’s either the most brilliant general manager in the sport or just another of many who isn’t immune from entirely questionable moves.
Consider this: In 2007 the Rangers traded 1.5 years of Mark Teixeira — who until that point had never generated as much as either of Donaldson’s last two seasons — for two premium prospects — Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus — a future #3 starter (Matt Harrison) and a flame-throwing lottery ticket (Neftali Feliz).
Teams just don’t move their prospects around like that anymore and, for a franchise like Oakland whose farm system is gutted, Beane may just be rationalizing a way to restock it to some degree. Talent has never been more difficult to acquire in baseball than it is right now. What’s different now — from the A’s perspective — is that they aren’t waiting around for the team to get uncompetitive. Instead they are voluntarily making themselves weaker in the short-term to build a future that wouldn’t otherwise exist without this trade, and others surely to come.
RHP Jeff Samardzija is as good as gone. Lefty Scott Kazmir is already checking in for his flight to Pittsburgh. Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss are both superfluous. Jon Lester and Jed Lowrie are lost to free agency. Two months from now, the A’s won’t even have the benefit of being a shell of themselves; they will merely be the fantastic image of Billy Beane’s creation, an organization willfully setting the clock back on itself.
With the addition of an extra Wild Card team in each league, general managers are inclined to simply hold on as long as they possibly can. Holding on… it’s the dream of dreams. On one night of a quiet November, Billy Beane has reversed this logic. His team was projected to compete with the likes of Anaheim and Seattle and Texas in the 2015 American League West, and he’s already letting go.
At the beginning of July I wrote an article on One Strike Away explaining the Oakland-Chicago Samardzija trade, opining that if Oakland makes it to a World Series over the next two years I don’t think they’ll regret Addison Russell.
Then, two months ago, I wrote another piece on the A’s — this time here — saying:
The trouble, which was the heavy risk the A’s front office absorbed when they made the trade, was that they put all their eggs 2014’s basket to win it all. If they didn’t, which they didn’t, it’s easy to second guess their decision to mortgage the future. The problem compounds itself exponentially since they didn’t even make it out of the wild card game.
We’re here now. It’s not even the beginning of December. Oakland traded their best player for a handful of good-but-nothing-special; unless I’m missing something here, the A’s are transitioning into full rebuild-mode a solid year, maybe two, before that thought was even necessary.