By trading Josh Donaldson, the A’s were just being themselves

Stars come from all sorts of places, from free agency and the draft, from international signings and middle-of-the-night defections, even from the back end of a long-ago trade nobody thought much of at the time and nobody remembers now. Quick: How did the Oakland A’s get Josh Donaldson? The only ones who know are absolute die-hards or cheaters who snuck a peek at Donaldson’s page on

Not only is Josh Donaldson an excellent defender but he hit 53 total homers the past two seasons. (USA TODAY Sports)
Not only is Josh Donaldson an excellent defender but he hit 53 total homers the past two seasons. (USA TODAY Sports)

Here’s the answer: He was the high-upside, could-bust piece of a deal, along with Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton and Eric Patterson, for … Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. And that was in 2008, when Donaldson was a catcher, nearly five years before he grew into one of the best third basemen in baseball with Oakland. The A’s developed Donaldson, nurtured him, extracted his talent and rode him to the postseason twice.

Part of life in Oakland, in that pit of a ballpark that is a black mark on Bud Selig’s legacy, is doing that again, and again, and again, turning a commodity into something valuable at that commodity’s apex. And so went the trade of Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night for a replacement at third base (Brett Lawrie) and a trio of kids (shortstop Franklin Barreto and pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin), one of whom, Oakland hopes, can be the next Josh Donaldson.

With regards to the present Donaldson, Toronto makes move No. 2 of the offseason, asserting itself as a 2015 force in the American League, following its role as bully at the poker table with its raising and re-raising and re-re-raising to land catcher Russell Martin for five years and $82 million. What’s next? Well, the money is there for Jon Lester, and the Blue Jays have shown themselves eminently capable of splashing the pot.

It’s a new day for the Blue Jays, for general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who finds himself emboldened despite never finishing higher than third in the AL East nor besting his first-year total of 85 wins. His last offseason of action came in 2013, when he swung the monster trades for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey. The Blue Jays finished in last place, and the blossoming of the traded Henderson Alvarez, Noah Syndergaard, Travis d’Arnaud, Adeiny Hechavarria, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani wasn’t just insult to injury. It was Chris Rock talking about your mom.

The feeling is the same as 2013 because Donaldson in the middle of a lineup with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and Reyes and Martin sounds awfully promising. Lawrie frustrated Toronto with his injuries and inconsistency, and Toronto could fill a hole by trading Dioner Navarro, Martin’s predecessor.

Those holes, of course, are not just little hand shovel digs. The Jays need a left fielder. They need a second baseman. They need a DH. They need a closer. They need better starting pitching. This is not a well-rounded team. Certainly they could re-sign Melky Cabrera to patrol left field and hope Devon Travis turns into a solution at second and get the Justin Smoak that Seattle thought would emerge and realize Aaron Sanchez is a dynamic option for the ninth inning and, best of all, land Lester to front a rotation with Dickey, Buerhle, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison or J.A. Happ.

All of that happens – even if a few of those things happen – and only then are the Jays the World Series contenders Anthopoulos envisions. Getting Donaldson is an understandable step, one that should see a nice offensive uptick going from a cavernous yard in Oakland to the Air Traffic Control Centre. Beyond the outlay in talent, he won’t be cheap: Donaldson will cost around $4.5 million this year, his first in arbitration, and another $40 million or so for the three years thereafter should he remain a star.

Brett Lawrie is now expected to man third base for Oakland. (AP Photo)
Brett Lawrie is now expected to man third base for Oakland. (AP Photo)

The criticism of Oakland, not just for dealing Donaldson but doing so without getting back a star major leaguer or someone who sits atop prospect lists, was loud in the moments after the full accounting of the deal was revealed. And that – well, that’s life today, not just for Billy Beane, the most polarizing general manager in the game, but for all of baseball, where it’s impossible to understand the sort of player a team might value until well after that value is established.

Oakland doesn’t mind softer-throwing starters like Graveman and Nolin because its ballpark doesn’t necessarily punish them. In Lawrie, it gets a player four years younger than the one it gave up, with three years of far cheaper control. And whether Barreto is or isn’t a shortstop ultimately, he helps bolster a farm system that gave up Addison Russell and Billy McKinney last summer with the A’s trying to win the World Series.

That didn’t happen. Oakland faltered down the stretch. It lost a game it shouldn’t have to a Kansas City team that nearly won the World Series. And rather than sit around and hope success repeats itself, Oakland looked at its finances, at its place in the league, at all the sorts of things good organizations consider, and realized that dealing Donaldson didn’t clash with their future plans.

It’s the sort of risk the A’s always need to take because they’re the A’s. Thriving as a have-not in a sport rife with haves takes not just the gall to make moves like this but the ability to make them work when the future is as certain as the wind. Oakland took a risk by trading Josh Donaldson, the sort of risk they must take, the sort of risk a $150 million team like the Blue Jays needn’t. No one – not even those who run the A’s and love the deal – can say for sure whether it was a good one. The last time Josh Donaldson was traded, remember, it took five years for the deal to even matter.

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