Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Perspective on the Josh Donaldson Trade - One Year Later

Franklin Barreto photo
  I remember it like it was just yesterday:  word came out via Twitter on a Friday night in late November that the Blue Jays had acquired Josh Donaldson from the Athletics, in return for Brett Lawrie and a package of minor leaguers.
   As someone who follows the day-by-day progress of players in the Blue Jays system, I held my breath a bit to see who would be in that package.  It was easy to figure that a top prospect would be going to the West Coast, with maybe some mid-level guys included.  Daniel Norris was the obvious first name to come to mind, but it was a bit surprising to see Franklin Barreto as the player the Athletics wanted in return. After a scintillating 2014, Norris was MLB-ready, or close to it.  Barreto, the Northwest League MVP at the tender age of 18, was still a couple of years away from making his MLB debut, and it's hard to see most GM's thinking that far into the future.  Except Billy Beane is not most GMs, and obviously felt the young Venezuelan, whose ultimate position in the majors is still a question, was willing to wait.
   Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin were not huge surprises.  Graveman had a 2014 that was the equal of Norris' in terms of ascent, but the feeling likely was that he had reached his ceiling, and the Blue Jays already had a fair stock of back-of-the-rotation arms.  Nolin, whose inability to stay healthy had to have cost him in terms of prospect status, was a bit of a victim of a numbers game, with fellow southpaws Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt all ahead of him.  Lefty starters in the Blue Jays system now, of course, are something of an endangered species.
   And while it was sad to see a good Canadian boy like Lawrie go, it was fairly plain to see that the club had run out of patience with his injury-riddled, underachieving ways.  Since his debut, he had shown flashes of brilliance, but on the whole had underwhelmed with his performance.  His departure, along with that of Barreto, served to remind that baseball players are assets, and if a GM feels he can improve his roster by dealing one or more of them, he will do it.
    Of the package of prospects, Barreto was the prospect I found the most difficult to see depart.  I had followed his progress since he signed with the organization in 2012, followed his progress in the GCL in 2013.  When he was called up to Bluefield late that season, Clinton Hollon, who had been promoted along with Barreto, tweeted about how young Frankie, who was still not all that fluent in English, was wandering around the Tampa airport, unsure of how, where, or when he was going to catch his flight to the Appalachians.  The following season, he was the top player in a league filled with recent college grads 3 and 4 years older than himself.  The sky appeared to be the limit, and even though I had yet to see him play live, when friends and followers asked which prospect excited me the most, it was this teenaged Venezuelan.

   You can't argue about the return the Blue Jays got for that package of players, of course.  Donaldson became only the 2nd player in club history to capture an MVP award, and his season stands with George Bell's 1987 and Carlos Delgado's 2003, and Jose Bautista's 2010 campaigns as the best by a position player since the Blue Jays' inception.  It's hard to know where to start when talking about Donaldson's season.  He was the first player to score over 120 runs and drive in as many since Albert Pujols in 2009. And he didn't just do it with the bat, either:  his 11.4 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 3rd in all of MLB.  His fiery, dive into the stands for a foul ball competitive spirit helped lift the team to its first playoff berth in 22 years.

   Lawrie was considered one of the top prospects in baseball when the Blue Jays acquired him for Shaun Marcum before the 2011 season.  The only blemish on Lawrie's resume was a question about where he would play - drafted out of a Vancouver-area HS as a catcher, he was converted to a 2nd Baseman by the Brewers.  The Blue Jays moved him to 3rd, and packed him off to their-then AAA affiliate in Las Vegas.  He made his MLB debut in August, and gave fans starved for a homegrown star plenty to dream about with his .293/.373/.580 line in 43 games.
   Lawrie just could not stay off the Disabled List after that, playing 125 games the following year, but only 107 in 2013, and 70 in his final year in Toronto.  His numbers tailed off in each successive year as well, and by 2014 the former 1st round pick was barely a league average player.
   What happened to a player of such promise?  For starters, Lawrie did not fit the power profile of a corner bat, and it's curious to know why Toronto felt he could be.  He did hit 18 Home Runs in the rarefied air of Las Vegas over a little more than half a minor league season, but his slugging totals never put him in the top tier of Hot Cornermen.  Did he know that, and press harder to overcome that, or did the pressure of playing in front of his fellow Canucks cause him to try too hard in a game where sometimes less is more?  Whatever the case, Lawrie's walk rates trended down every year during his time in the blue and white, and his strikeout rate went the opposite direction.  Either through his own over-aggressiveness, or by pitchers challenging him from the start, he had 0-1 counts almost 65% of the time, meaning that he was more often than not facing pitchers; counts.  More of a line drive than a fly ball hitter,  Lawrie was never able to take advantage of the Rogers Centre's hitter-friendly dimensions.  Unlike Jose Bautista (who posted the lowest line drive rate among all MLB hitters this year at 13.9%), or even Donaldson, Lawrie was not able to add some loft to his swing and put some balls into the Rogers Centre jetstream.
   Lawrie's numbers did not figure to improve in the spacious Coliseum, and they didn't in 2015, although he played in a career-high 149 games, 25 better than his high with the Blue Jays.  His steady descent into the realm of a replacement-level player continued, however.  Lawrie's OBP and OPS were both below league average, and his Walk and K rates put him among the lowest contact makers in the game. His defence was not a saving grace, either, as his -8.7 Defensive Runs Saved ranking put him ahead of only the largely immobile Pablo Sandoval among MLB 3rd Basemen. Lawrie did establish career highs in Home Runs (16) and RBIs (60).

   Graveman is who he is - a back of the rotation arm who has the potential to eat up some innings.  In a bit of an up and down year, he made the team out of spring training, was sent down for a month of AAA action at the end of April, and was back to stay for good in June.  Graveman went on a two-month run following his return to the bigs, posting a 2.01 ERA in 8 starts.  A strained oblique put him on the DL in late August, and the Athletics opted not to bring him back with the team out of contention.
  Graveman had a respectable 50% Ground ball rate, but gave up a lot of medium and hard contact (81.6%), and not much (15.4%) of the soft variety.  Simply put, he didn't miss as many bats in the big leagues as he did in his rise through the minors last year.  He has to be considered a strong candidate to land a mid-rotation job again next year.  Graveman is very athletic, and is capable of making the adjustments necessary to avoid barrels on a greater basis than he did in 2015.

   Nolin was unable to remain healthy in 2015, tossing only 47 AAA innings before getting a September call-up.  He pitched reasonably well in 6 starts, but his velocity was in the mid-80s, and he had trouble limiting his walks, giving up 12 in 26 innings.  Once upon a time, he profiled as one of those innings eaters, but over the past several years, the innings have eaten him.  The 119 innings he threw at several levels (including the Arizona Fall League) last year is the highest total he's managed since turning pro in 2010.  It's hard to see Nolin being anything than a fringy major leaguer at this point, unless he can stay healthy long enough to see some regular work.

   Which brings us to Barreto, the likely centrepiece of the deal from Oakland's perspective.  Skipping Low A, Barreto played at High A Stockton this year, and overcame a slow start and injuries which limited him to 90 games to post a decent line of .302/.333/.500.  And while there was some concern about the consistency of his swing, it's important to remember that Barreto was playing in his first year of full-season ball at the age of 19.
   Barreto was a much-heralded youth player in his native Venezuela, and was already well-known in baseball circles when the Blue Jays signed him in 2012.  He was ranked the Northwest League's Top Prospect last season, when he also cracked Baseball America's Top 100 for the first time.  This year, he had made it all the way up to the Top 25 (at 22nd), and was named the California League's 2nd Top Prospect.  A position switch is drawing very near for Barreto, who has neither the footwork or arm to stick at Short - his Venezuelan League team has played him in the Outfield during this winter league season.  Just the same, he barrels up balls frequently, and still profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat.

   Who "won" the trade, then?

Obviously, Toronto.  Barreto is a future blue chipper, Lawrie may still turn things around (he's only 25), and Graveman and maybe even Nolin will give the Athletics some innings.  But Donaldson was almost a 9 WAR player this year, and with another year of team control will provide a 2016 of similar value.  And even if you wait the customary 3-4 years to judge a trade, Toronto will still have gotten the better of Oakland. Donaldson has proven to be a franchise player - one whose impact on the team was felt on and off the field. He set an example not only to his teammates, but to all players in the organization with his work ethic - only a week into Spring Training last year, I asked Anthony Alford, who was in his first big league spring camp with the team, who impressed him the most, and he said Donaldson without hesitation.  Barreto was likely the centerpiece of the deal from an Oakland perspective, so to be fair, we have to say that Toronto won the deal for now.  Breaking a two decades-plus playoff drought is the added component to evaluating this trade. No disrespect to Lawrie, but this team probably does not break through even with him in the lineup for 149 games.  Donaldson brought a desire to win that seemed, to a fan, to be lacking in previous years - a penchant for clutch hits, daring baserunning, and diving into the stands that lit a serious fire under this team, and only intensified when the club was drastically upgraded at the trade deadline.

   In many ways, the deal captured the essence of both  Alex Anthopoulos and Beane.  The former, who espoused the roll-the-dice strategy when it came to trades and draft picks, opted to patiently build up the farm system, and then use its depth to strengthen the big club.  The latter showed that he's not afraid to deal a player whose affordability window is rapidly closing, even if it's likely that player will succeed with his new team.  Both, of course, are no longer GMs, with Beane now running the baseball side from the executive suite in Oakland, and Anthopoulos looking for a similar gig elsewhere.  There's little doubt that both would probably make that deal again.

   If re-signing David Price is the first task of the new management team of Tony LaCava and Mark Shapiro, locking up Donaldson to a long-term deal should be the second.  Or maybe even the first.

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