The “Bringer of Rain” was, at one point, one of the best third baseman in baseball. Racking up 13 WAR (in addition to 53 HRs and 191 RBIs) over his final two seasons in Oakland, Donaldson was sure to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. After 2014 – which was his age-28 season – Donaldson was dealt by the A’s to Toronto for a group of prospects that included Brett Lawrie and Kendall Graveman.
The A’s likely traded Donaldson because he was about to enter arbitration as a 28-year-old. Generally, the majority of players peak around 28 or 29 years old, so Athletics GM Billy Beane was, in effect, trading a player who was statistically likely to decline in the following years. Going into a player’s “arbitration years” gives a player more bargaining power and a substantial increase in salary, depending on prior performance, but the team still “owns” the player for a few years before they reach free agency. Entering arbitration, Donaldson had made just $1.5 million over three years with the Athletics, producing 14.2 WAR in that span. Now, in 2014, teams were paying about $7.7 million per 1 WAR. Meaning that up to that point, the Athletics should have been paying Donaldson about $109.34 million; Donaldson was paid less than 1% of his true value up to that point. The A’s are the very definition of a small market team and need to glean value wherever they can, so this was an excellent stretch for GM Billy Beane.
Now, arbitration allows players and teams to haggle over their salaries and agree to gradual increases in player salary until the team either “buys out” arbitration years as part of a long-term deal or the player reaches free agency. Donaldson only made about $4 million in 2015, his first season away from the Athletics, which still would have been immense value if Donaldson had produced anywhere close to his previous seasons.
The A’s, up to that point in 2014, had had some success with Donaldson in the lineup. The 2014 A’s did make the postseason, albeit after collapsing through August and September and ceding the AL West to the Angels. They had a rotation centered around Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Drew Pomeranz, and more (after losing Jon Lester in free agency). The A’s lineup was on the older side, with one player below 26 and the rest close to reaching 30, with Donaldson easily the best player in the lineup. The lineup was good enough to win 88 games in 2014 and the team was extremely unlucky according to the Pythagorean W-L record, with the A’s run differential projecting them for a 99-63 record (would have put them 1 game ahead of the Angels for the 2014 Division), but was buoyed by some players having career years and some infusion of talents destined for free agency.
So, to recap, the A’s were trading a player who was in his peak years and held a suppressed salary for at least 2-3 more years, with a lineup that likely wasn’t going to contend with or without him. Granted, the A’s don’t have the luxury of trying to continually supplement an aging core (which they had) with free agency splashes or several free agent signings. But this was Josh Donaldson, an All-Star and two time top-ten MVP finisher. You don’t trade those players unless you know you’re going to get a great return.
(Spoiler alert: the A’s got…some decent production from Kendall Graveman but everyone else was a wash)
What if Donaldson was never traded?
First of all, Matt Chapman, the A’s current star third baseman, would still have been drafted. He was taken 25th overall in the 2014 MLB draft out of Cal State Fullerton. I am willing to bet that the A’s wouldn’t have completely tanked the 2015 season without Donaldson. Firstly, Donaldson’s 2015 was another fantastic year, as he slashed .297/.371/.568 and was worth 7.1 WAR. It was a markedly better season than Brett Lawrie’s 2015, who came over from the Blue Jays to become Donaldson’s replacement (.260/.299/.407, 1.7 WAR). So, instead of a replacement-level player, the A’s are starting an All-Star at third base.
The A’s almost certainly lose Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Jason Hammel, each of whom signed deals that the A’s could not compete with. The A’s rotation remained strong in 2015, but completely fell apart in the years following that, with Sonny Gray collapsing and little in the farm system to replace his lost production.
But beyond 2015, keeping Donaldson has some intriguing long-term effects on the team offense. Marcus Semien made his major league debut in 2015, and since then has been worth anywhere from roughly-replacement level to MVP-caliber (depending on the season). I assume the A’s likely would have kept him around, but where it gets tricky is what happens with Matt Chapman. Chapman can play shortstop and third base, so he could have served as a replacement for Donaldson or Semien. Donaldson was still under team control through 2018 as a result of arbitration rules. So, assuming Donaldson remained in their long-term plans and Semien remained at shortstop, the A’s could have tried to move Chapman elsewhere on the field or simply opt to keep him as a designated hitter. Either way, I am sure that the A’s would have tried to find a way to put him in the lineup. A lineup in 2017 of Chapman, Semien, Donaldson, Khris Davis, Matt Olson, and possibly Jed Lowrie would have been very good.
Or, the A’s could have tried to deal him in a trade. But Chapman was never highly ranked on his own, peaking at 95th overall in MLB’s Prospect Pipeline in 2016. So, the A’s likely keep Chapman and (assuming they keep Chapman, Donaldson, Semien) form quite the lineup in 2017, but the team was weak enough that year that even with Donaldson’s bat, that team still isn’t good enough to make the playoffs (75-87 without Donaldson).
Donaldson was injured for nearly all of 2018, so I don’t want to speculate with production. He also entered free agency in 2019 and 2020, and still commanded contracts that the A’s likely would not have been able to compete with.
The thing is that the team (with or without Donaldson) was destined for a return back to mediocrity and futility. Some of the team’s strong contributors from 2013 and 2014 left in free agency or simply aged out of their productive years. So, Beane was absolutely right to trade Donaldson based on the team’s long-term future. The A’s wouldn’t have been able to supplement Donaldson with enough in free agency or even from their farm system to make a run at a championship. So, Donaldson would have been producing elite-level seasons basically for nothing (As an Angels fan, I have no idea what that’s like).
As unfortunate as it may seem for A’s fans, the best way that Billy Beane could have played this was by trading Donaldson but with a better haul of prospects coming back to the A’s. It would have been easier to stomach watching Donaldson tearing it up in Toronto had the A’s acquired core pieces for the future, especially because he was still under team control for years to come.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)