A’s take a step back in AL West

 Trying to predict what move will be made next by the Oakland Athletics and GM Billy Beane is impossible — and that is an understatement. On Friday night the A’s dealt All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for third baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects.

Also heading to the A’s is Franklin Barreto, an 18-year old standout at shortstop, Sean Nolin, a 24-year old left-hander who is ready for major league action, and Kendall Graveman, a 23-year old right-hander who was drafted in 2013 and appeared in the majors out of the bullpen late in the season.

The Jays take home the biggest piece of the transaction in Donaldson, who is coming off a 6.4 fWAR campaign including a 129 wRC+ and Gold Glove nomination. The 28-year old has 54 home runs over the last two seasons and has been one of the best position players in all of baseball the last several seasons.

Lawrie was a first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008 and has carried the potential to be a star. However he has battled injuries for much of the last three years and has only shown said potential in spurts. Barreto is still quite raw and likely several years away from the majors, but is extremely talented with strengths in all five tools.

Both Nolin and Graveman are intriguing pitching prospects with plenty of potential, but they filled out the second tier of pitching prospects in Toronto’s system. The fact that the Blue Jays were able to acquire a player of Donaldson’s calibre without surrendering one of their top pitching prospects in Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and Daniel Norris is surprising, but the A’s do receive an everyday third baseman in Lawrie who still has reasonable upside so long as he remains healthy.

After moving all-in this past summer to acquire starters Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija it is very shocking to see the A’s deal a budding superstar and one of the faces of the franchise. And it’s not as if it is a cost thing either. Donaldson is eligible for arbitration for the first time as a super-two player and is projected to earn between $4 and 5 million. Oakland’s midseason acquisitions did deplete the system of prospects, so this is a trade geared more towards the future than the year ahead.

Oakland had a stranglehold on the American League West for much of the first half of 2014, but did not clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the season. The club would lose the Wild Card game to the eventual AL Champions Kansas City Royals. Beane admitted that the club’s shortcomings in 2014 factored into his decision to trade Donaldson.

Is this the first of many moves for a rebuilding Athletics team? Tough to say. The club is listening on Samardzija, who will be a free agent after 2015, but Beane gave no indication that he’s throwing in the towel. After all, the club did just sign Billy Butler to a three-year deal and likely has several more moves to be made.

This deal, and the ones that may follow, could shake up the balance of power at the top of the AL West and provide a small window of opportunity for the Seattle Mariners. At the moment the A’s are a much weaker club, but are reported to be in talks with the Atlanta Braves.

John Hickey tweets that Justin Upton and Evan Gattis are the topics, and Samardzija may “be the bait”. Oakland does have room in the outfield and could look to move Josh Reddick or Coco Crisp as well. The club used a three-headed catcher platoon last year with Dereck Norris, John Jaso, and Stephen Vogt but Jaso has been rumored to be available in trade talks. Gattis can play in the outfield and behind the dish, making him a great fit. It would not be the least bit surprising to see another move of this nature, and the A’s haven’t shied away from players with limited club control, like Upton or Lester.

Considering that Lawrie is the only player the A’s received that will presumably have a regular role on next year’s club — both Nolin and Graveman are expected to compete for spots — acquiring a player like Upton would be necessary for the club to regain the short-term talent that was lost. There is plenty of justification for dealing Donaldson as his stock will likely never be higher, but it can’t accurately be judged until we see what comes next. Including the departures of Lester, Jason Hammel, and Jed Lowrie, the A’s have a lot of talent departing the roster and holes that will have to be filled.

There will be increased pressure on the Mariners to make a splash of their own as the Jays and Boston Red Sox — teams likely to be involved in the Wild Card race — are much improved.

The winter meetings are just around the corner, and the stove is already boiling.

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Tyler Carmont

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