Billy Beane seems to have his own idea of when to open and close his window.
Sometimes he gets it right, like when he surprised everybody by signing Yoenis Cespedes before the 2012 season, and after trading away Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill earlier in the winter. The A's looked like they were rebuilding, and they ended up winning 94 games instead.
Sometimes he gets it wrong, like when he pulled his own Nick Swisher sequence for a half-season of Matt Holliday over 2008 and 2009:
- Traded for Holliday: Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street, Greg Smith
- Traded Holliday for: Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson and Brett Wallace
That's what makes the Josh Donaldson trade so confounding. On paper, he's selling Donaldson high in order to buy Brett Lawrie low. There are three prospects involved, but nobody who might know is all that enamored. Shortstop Franklin Barreto is the most promising, but he's years away from the majors and not expected to stick at short. Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin are supposedly back-of-the-rotation types.
There is star upside coming back if Lawrie can figure out what made him untouchable early in his career, but Keith Law says he's fighting a two-front war against the injury bug and self-defeating swing mechanics:
What I don't quite get is the A's portion of this, even if you take fairly optimistic views of all four players they acquired. Is this really enough for four years of control of one of the best players in baseball? Lawrie is still only 24 years old and has energy and athleticism to spare, but he gets hurt way too often and has become a severe ground ball hitter thanks to a swing that has his hands moving down at the ball from his load. He's an above-average defender at third; he might make you think he's elite because of his highlight-reel plays, but scouts and advanced metrics (UZR/dRS) agree he's not. What he does do well, however, is put the ball in play, a skill GMs seem to be telling us this winter they're valuing more highly than ever (tip your cap in the direction of Kansas City as you read that). There's power in the body if the A's can overhaul his swing, but that's a significant undertaking with any player -- and Lawrie will have to be healthy to make it matter. I still think his upside is that of a 4-5 win player, but I believe the probability of him getting there is half of what it used to be.
Increased power is an iffy bet, since he's going from one of baseball's best home run parks to one of its tougher ones. He could make up some of the difference in doubles and triples, but you have to squint to see it.
Ken Rosenthal put it in a simpler way that should register with us:
Lawrie, 24, is a terrific talent who is under club control for three more seasons. Still, he has been on the disabled list six times since his major-league debut in 2011. And some in the industry see him as another Gordon Beckham, a player who might never fulfill his offensive potential.
Moreover, while Donaldson's salary will start increasing as a Super Two, Lawrie's entering his first arbitration year as well. If he rediscovers his ability, the A's might grapple with the same financial issues all over again.
I get why a team might want to get its hands on Lawrie. I don't understand him as the unquestioned headliner, because it seems similar to the John Danks-Jose Lopez trade we all knocked from years ago -- both sides of the trade might produce 5 WAR or whatever, but one side needs two fewer roster spots to accomplish it, and the fear of big arbitration salaries shouldn't be the prime motivation to pull the trigger.
That said, the trade is too confusing to feel confident in any particular reading at this moment. Just like four years ago, Beane might not be gutting his team at all. It's pretty awesome that the point-counterpoint poll on Athletics Nation shows a perfectly divided fan base:
The A's roster is so unbalanced that more big moves are certainly coming, and Jeff Sullivan has a hunch one of them could be Donaldson's actual replacement who would force Lawrie to move to second:
getting an inkling of Chase Headley to Oakland within a week— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) November 29, 2014
That makes more sense in terms of net talent and production, although they'd be paying for it. But I think it's bold to count on Oakland winning Headley's services, especially after Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez both went to the Red Sox. Headley looked like more of a bargain before before a team that didn't really need a third baseman bought the two best free agents there.
If the A's do sign Headley, then it's harder to see a fit between the A's and the White Sox for Jeff Samardzija. The Sox make sense as a trading partner if the A's need a second baseman and some reinforcement for third. If Beane invests heavily in both positions, and if he's waiting for the free-agent pitching market to resolve itself before moving his own pitchers, then the A's may not be the trade partner the Sox need, and vice versa.