Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Josh Donaldson for Brett Lawrie Trade Analysis

Many fans were shocked when they heard the A's had traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie and a collection of prospects.

Josh Donaldson was one of the best players, let alone third basemen, in all of major league baseball the past two years.  He's put up a combined 15.4 WAR over the last two seasons.  He's performed so well he's placed 4th and 8th in MVP voting the past two seasons.  In an era of declining power and offense, he slugged 29 home runs in 2014.

So why did the A's trade him?  After the signing of Brett Butler Billy Butler (heh, I'm showing my age.  Brett Butler's long retired.), it was clear the A's were still trying to win instead of do a full out rebuild.

I believe there is a classic reason, and it's regression to the mean.

Josh Donaldson was a reasonably regarded amateur player, being drafted 48th overall in 2007 by the Cubs.  He was never regarded as a high end prospect, never placing amongst the top 100 prospects in baseball.  His minor league numbers were never that impressive.  In fact, in 2011 he hit a relatively unimpressive .261/.344/.439 in AAA.  It wasn't until 2012 that he started to impress, hitting .335/.402/.598 in AAA.

After that good start in 2012, he was then called up to the majors, as a relatively old 26 year old rookie.  In 2013, a relatively old 27 year old first time full time major leaguer, he puts up a 8.0 WAR and a 4th place MVP finish.  In just his second year in the majors (again, at a relatively old 28), he puts up a 7.4 WAR.

Needless to say, that's an incredible performance for a player just starting in the majors, let alone a player that effectively started in the majors at 27.

So this is the question.  Is Josh Donaldson that good of a player that he can continually put up MVP (or even All Star like) numbers?  Or is Josh Donaldson going to regress towards the mean a bit more.  His defensive prowess is alone good enough to put up a WAR of 2 per year.  If he (hypothetically) averages a WAR of 3.5-4 per year, he's still a very valuable player.  But is it expected that he continually put up a WAR of 5+, 6+ or 7+ a year?

He did decline from 2013 to 2014.  His slash line fell from .301/.384/.499 to .255/.342/.456.  Is this decline something to be continued in the future?

It's not to say that players can't suddenly find that major "spark" that turns their career around, even at a late age.  Many players have done that before.

My guess is that Billy Beane knew the odds were that Donaldson would regress, and when a good trade opportunity presented itself, he was more than willing to take it.  We'll see if he was right.

Update 12/15/15:

Well, it seems Billy Beane gambled wrong.  What did Donaldson do in 2015?

.297/.371/.568, that's a .939 OPS (4th in the AL)

had a career high 8.8 WAR

won the MVP

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