Blue Jays win big, save big with Donaldson trade

Shi Davidi breaks down the Blue Jays trade that sent Brett Lawrie to Oakland to bring in Josh Donaldson, saying it brings control to the organization in regards to contracts and durability on the field.

TORONTO – The Boston Red Sox’s $183-million splurge on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez this week underlined just how expensive shopping for power can be, and offers an interesting contrast point to the Toronto Blue Jays’ stunning acquisition of Josh Donaldson.

Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman and shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto are a steep price for the MVP-calibre third baseman, and Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane has a pretty solid track record of getting these deals right.

Still, when Sandoval commands $95 million over five years and Ramirez gets $88 over four, parting with a supremely talented but oft-injured package of potential in Lawrie, two solid but likely mid-to-back of the rotation arms in Nolin and Graveman, plus a promising kid years away from the bigs in Barreto doesn’t seem that bad.

So while keeping Lawrie and shifting him over to second base would have been ideal, and yes, some of the Blue Jays’ pitching depth has been eroded, keep in mind that one way or another the acquisition cost for the increasingly rare commodity of power was going to hurt.

Despite that pain, the Blue Jays are clearly better with Donaldson, even if they still need to address left field and second base, not to mention the bullpen.

"I notice a lot of people are focused on positional needs," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said on a conference call late Friday. "I know people can say, ‘Well, you had a third baseman’ and that’s true, we did. But I don’t know that we had another middle of the order bat to go with (Edwin) Encarnacion and (Jose) Bautista and now we do. That was a spot in the lineup of need if you want to call it that.

"I would still like to do better from an offensive standpoint but I do think we’re improved from what we were a day ago."

A potential top five of Jose Reyes, Russ Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson is easily among the most imposing in baseball, and that’s with plenty of time left in the off-season to make more happen.

As things stand now, the rest of the lineup would look something like, Dioner Navarro/Justin Smoak, Andy Dirks/John Mayberry, Maicer Izturis and Dalton Pompey/Kevin Pillar. Re-signing Melky Cabrera would help, but so might someone like fellow free agent outfielder Nori Aoki, adding another hitter capable of creating offence alongside the middle of the order thump.

But with Donaldson projected to earn roughly $4.5 million in arbitration as a Super 2 service time player, the Blue Jays still have financial wiggle room remaining. They have about $128 million on the books in commitments to 11 signed players and seven projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players, which leaves them with about $12 million to spend on a payroll of $140 million.

Navarro’s $5 million is expected to be moved, with the return likely to plug another hole, and that frees up more money while trading away J.A. Happ and his $6.7 million could create additional salary space. But the Blue Jays may now be more inclined to keep their starters after moving Nolin and Graveman, even though they still have some rotation surplus with swingman Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and Daniel Norris coming.

Whichever way they go, Donaldson gives them all kinds of flexibility by lengthening a lineup shortened by the trade of Adam Lind.

"We got a middle of the order right-handed power bat, which is getting harder to find," said Anthopoulos. "We’ve got that locked down for four years. Especially with some of the other depth with our arms, it’s a deal we felt we had to make."

Donaldson’s Baseball Reference WAR of 8.0 and 7.4 over the past two seasons was second only in the American League to Mike Trout, and a move away from the cavernous AL West ballparks into the far more hitter friendly AL East should only make him even more productive.

The soon to be 29-year-old – his birthday is on Dec. 8 – can also play a little defence and comes with one more year of control than Lawrie had. Combine everything with the remaining financial flexibility, and this looks like a win in so many ways for the Blue Jays.

"We didn’t expect him to be available," Anthopoulos said of Donaldson. "Gamer, hard-nosed, durable … an intense guy, wants to win, and a guy that can hit in the middle of our order."

Anthopoulos asked Beane about Donaldson early in the off-season and received an "emphatic" no, and then revisited the matter Monday, when Lawrie was put on the table. They talked again Tuesday, things picked up Wednesday, things went back and forth Thursday and were eventually settled late that night, with medicals Friday leading up to the deal.

"When Brett was involved to replace Josh, that’s when things started to move a little bit," said Anthopoulos. "Look, we wanted to keep Brett and add to the team, clearly we traded some young kids and guys that have a lot of control, from a contractual and salary standpoint they’d fit with any club, but clearly we’re trying to make our team better as soon as we can.

"Billy needed guys who were close who could help out. Brett was key because he could step right in at third."

Handling Lawrie and his recurring oblique problems is now a matter for the Athletics. The 24-year-old has the talent to be the type of player Donaldson already is but hasn’t been able to stay on the field, appearing in just 70 contests last year.

The Blue Jays have been seeking players with more durability and Donaldson has been that, playing in 316 of 324 regular season games the last two seasons.

Nolin, 24, and Graveman, 23, are among the surplus of young arms who would have been fighting for places on the Blue Jays’ staff in 2015.

Barreto, an 18-year-old shortstop, impressed mightily at single-A Vancouver this past season where he posted an .865 OPS in 73 games, and may develop into a piece the Blue Jays will one day miss.

Whether or not that happens will help settle the final tally on an intriguing trade, and if paying for power in assets the way the Blue Jays did, or in big money via free agency like the Red Sox, was the more sensible route to take.