Donaldson deal a stunning steal for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos spoke after trading Brett Lawrie and minor leaguers for Oakland's Josh Donaldson, saying Lawrie was "a Blue Jay through-and-through," but Donaldson should hopefully get the team to the playoffs.

TORONTO, Ont. – “The Blue Jays traded Brett Lawrie.”

That’s going to be the headline, the main talking point in many of the discussions surrounding the four-for-one deal the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics just made, with Lawrie heading west along with almost-ready-for-prime-time pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin and 18-year-old lottery ticket Franklin Barreto.

But the headlines should be, “The Blue Jays Landed Josh Donaldson.”

The price was steep – you’ve always got to give up something to get something – but in acquiring Donaldson, the Jays get a player who by all rights should never even have been available.

Over the past two seasons, since moving from behind the plate to third base and getting the chance to play everyday, the 28-year-old has hit .277/.363/.477 with 53 home runs, answering the bell for all but eight games. And that production came while playing his home games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum. On the road, Donaldson hit .291/.380/.496 over the same span, with 29 of those 53 homers.

WAR is a flawed metric, to be sure, and to add to its flaws, there are two different ways to measure it depending on where you look ( and each use different metrics to account for base running and defence as part of their respective formulae). Bearing that caveat in mind, it’s more than worth noting that in both 2013 and 2014 Donaldson trailed only Mike Trout among American Leaguers in WAR, as determined by By’s measurement of WAR, Donaldson was second only to Trout in his breakout ’13 season and fourth in the league behind Trout, Cleveland’s Michael Brantley and Alex Gordon of the Royals this past season.

When Opening Day of 2015 rolls around, Donaldson will be 29 years old. He’s a superstar who is still in his peak years, and he isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season. Guys like this almost never get moved in trades, but the Blue Jays used their surplus of young starting pitching and dangled the carrot of the super-toolsy and fantastically talented Barreto in addition to the super-toolsy and fantastically talented Lawrie and wound up picking up what may not wind up being the biggest name to be moved this winter, but who will certainly be the most productive player to be moved.

The last time a player with fewer than three years of service time and two top-eight finishes in MVP balloting was traded was … never.

I’ll admit my research hasn’t been confirmed by the Elias Sports Bureau, but the closest I found were two players, neither of whom meet that standard. Alfonso Soriano, moved from the Yankees to Texas in the Alex Rodriguez deal, had just over three years service time and had finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2001 and third in MVP balloting in 2002. Bill Madlock was traded from the Cubs to the Giants in 1977 because of a contract dispute (he had the gall to demand to be paid $200,000 after winning back to back batting titles). Like Soriano, Madlock had just over three years of big-league time. He also had a third place finish in Rookie of the Year voting, a sixth and 12th in MVP balloting and, of course, those two batting titles.

In the annals of history, that’s it. One guy dealt as the centrepiece of a trade to get one of the game’s best players, another because the Cubs didn’t want to pay him. Neither of them had the early-career resume of Donaldson.

The Blue Jays gave up a lot, but they had the depth to do so. Graveman and Nolin will both likely pitch in the big leagues this year as rookies, and they’re both good pitchers. Neither of them, however, would have been better than fifth starters in a Blue Jays “rotation of the future” that should feature Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and Daniel Norris. On the Blue Jays depth chart, Graveman and Norris were behind those four, as well as incumbents Mark Buerhle, R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ. Youngsters Roberto Osuna, Alberto Tirado along with 2014 draftees Jeff Hoffman and Sean Reid-Foley all have higher ceilings than the two hurlers sent to Oakland.

Graveman and Nolin could be low-to-mid-rotation starters with the A’s, and could certainly thrive in that pitcher’s haven, but for the Blue Jays they were clearly expendable parts.

Barreto, as mentioned above, is the lottery ticket in the mix. Ranked fifth among Blue Jays prospects by and eighth by Baseball America, the shortstop-for-now is one of those talents scouts adore – athletic, speedy and powerful. But he’s just 18 years old, has never played in even a full minor league season, and scouts don’t believe he’ll be able to stick at short. At this point, anything could happen with him and the odds that he ever accomplishes even close to what Donaldson has already done are minuscule.

And, of course, there’s Brett Lawrie. There’s no doubt that it will hurt to watch him ply his trade in green and gold. A spectacular, game-changing defender at third base, Lawrie burst onto the scene in August 2011. He put up numbers over that first quarter-season that would have won him an MVP award had he managed the same production over a full year. But not only has Lawrie not been able to approach those numbers since, he’s had a lot of trouble staying on the field as well.

Where Donaldson has missed a total of eight games over the past two seasons, Lawrie has missed 147 due to a litany of injuries that have included a couple of oblique strains, a broken finger and a badly sprained ankle. Back in 2012, in which Lawrie played 125 games in his first full season, there was that ill-advised dive into the deep camera well at Yankee Stadium and another oblique strain.

There are reports that Lawrie has changed his workout routine so as to not be wound so tightly in the hopes of avoiding future disabling muscle strains and pulls, and the hope is that he’ll be able to answer the bell more often. But even healthy, Lawrie hasn’t been able to approach the offensive numbers that Donaldson has put up, with a .261/.316/.406 mark in the three seasons after those great six weeks in his rookie year. His OPS+ of 97 over that span says that Lawrie has managed 97 percent of the offensive production of the average big-leaguer, compared to Donaldson’s 127 percent over the same time.

Lawrie’s incredibly high energy level may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but not me. I loved watching him play and will continue to. He should be a future all-star based on the glove alone, and his power should continue to develop. Lawrie’s 12 home runs in 2014 were a career-high, despite the fact that he played only 70 games.

As good as one hopes he’s going to be, though, just like everyone else moved by the Blue Jays in the trade, the odds that Lawrie will ever be as good as Donaldson is now are not in his favour.

On the defensive side, while Lawrie may well be the best defensive third baseman I have ever seen (I wasn’t around for the Brooks Robinson era, but it’s hard to imagine he was much better), Donaldson is no slouch.

Looking at the fielding metrics Donaldson holds up very well. He was second in the majors in both Ultimate Zone Rating and UZR/150 and third in the league in Out of Zone plays this past season. UZR/150 is a defensive metric that’s often referred to in measuring a short segment of time, but it was actually designed to be accurate only when looking at a three-year sample. Over the last three years, it ranks Donaldson as the best third baseman in the AL.

There is concern, of course, that Donaldson’s offensive numbers dropped off so badly between 2013 and ’14. He went from .301/.384/.499 to .255/.342/.456. Some of that can be attributed to a knee injury he suffered late last season – Donaldson played hurt through the A’s push to remain in a playoff spot and staggered through September hitting just .233/.307/.379. And again, even with the poor final month and the drop off in numbers, Donaldson still belted 29 home runs and finished in the top four in the league in WAR, by either measure. He posted a walk rate of 10.9 percent while striking out only 18.7 percent of the time – a very low number for a modern-day power hitter – and, just for the heck of it, Donaldson hit .299/.425/.483 in 186 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. He hit with 4.6 percent more runners on base than the average big-league hitter, but drove in 40 percent more runs than the average big-league hitter, adjusted for the number of plate appearances.

There is also a concern that the middle of the Blue Jays order is now too right-handed, though the addition of Donaldson doesn’t change that mix at all. It does appear that as currently constituted, the Jays could go with Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson all in a row from second to fifth, thanks to the departure of threatening left-handed bat Adam Lind and the probable exit of Melky Cabrera.

There’s no question, though, as to who got the best player in this trade, and it’s not hard to argue that Donaldson might well be the best third baseman in the game today. One wonders if we may look back at this Blue Jays off-season, at swapping out Lawrie and Dioner Navarro for Donaldson and Russell Martin, as the Carter-Alomar moment for a new generation. I’m not suggesting the Blue Jays have acquired a future Hall of Famer or anything like that, but these moves could be the tweaks they need to get them over the hump, to get those five extra wins they needed to be a playoff team and maybe a whole lot more. And there’s still two and a half months of off-season to go.

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