There has been considerable speculation about the Jays trading Josh Donaldson. What would such a trade look like?
Every year, the highly respected Fangraphs website publishes a list of the 50 MLB players with the highest trade value. This list considers current and projected future production, risk of decline, contract, among other things.
In their 2016 list (which calculates value from the 2017 season forward) Josh Donaldson was ranked #14 – just ahead of two guys named Sale and Bumgarner, and just behind some young pitcher named Syndergaard (sob!). This was despite Donaldson having only two years of team control left, one of them (2018) subject to arbitration.
In short, Josh is holy-cow-Batman valuable.
Some might question how a player with only two years of remaining team control could be so valuable. The answer is twofold: first, Josh’s 30.5 fWAR from his breakout in 2013 through 2016 is second only to some fish in Anaheim. And second, upgrading a position from 3 WAR to 6 WAR is much harder than upgrading from 0 to 3 – elite talent is much, much harder to find.
So what would Josh be worth?
Suppose the Jays were to trade Donaldson today (so almost 2 full seasons for the buyer). And assume that he has fully recovered from his strained calf, so there is no injury discount. What level of package would he command?
Toronto Blue Jays
Well, if we use the fangraphs rankings referenced above, the 2015 MVP would have value similar to Chris Sale (note that Sale’s fWAR from 2013-2016 was 21.5, or roughly 70% of JD’s). When Boston traded for Sale this past offseason, Chicago received the #1 prospect in all of baseball as per mlb.com (Yoan Moncada) as well as the #67 (Kopech) and two other good-but-not-top-100 prospects (Basabe and Diaz)
A second reference point might be the 2016 trade of Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress for Lewis Brinson (#30 on Baseball America’s 2016 midseason top 100 prospect list), Luis Ortiz (#74), and a PTBNL. Lucroy was ranked #48 in the 2015 fangraphs trade value list – clearly valuable, but not in JD’s class.
One last reference might be Adam Eaton. Eaton did not make the fangraphs top-50 list, but he did get an honourable mention. He was traded for Lucas Giolito (ranked #3 prospect in all baseball by mlb.com), Reynaldo Lopez (#38), and Dane Dunning (a first round pick in the 2016 draft).
It follows that, based on the fangraph rankings and these comparables, Donaldson should bring in a considerable prospect haul. Something like one top-5, one top-30 and additional pieces. That is, of course, if the Jays chose to take prospects in return.
If not prospects, what?
It is a truism that only contenders are willing to pay top dollar for players like Donaldson, and that contenders are not willing to create weaknesses elsewhere in their lineup (by trading players on the current 25-man) to gain value elsewhere.
I disagree with that position on two counts.
First, a team should be looking to increase the strength of their overall team. So if they could get (say) a 4 fWAR upgrade at 3B by trading for Donaldson, but they had to accept a 1 fWAR reduction at another position, would it not make sense for them to do so?
My second argument is the “time value of WAR”. For a current contender, 9 WAR over the next 1.5 years is arguably more valuable than 15 WAR over the next 5. But for a rebuilding team, the inexpensive 15 WAR could be more attractive.
The other trade scenario
Suppose there were a team who were a playoff contender. They have an existing third baseman who is more than adequate – perhaps a young player who is just growing into his potential. That player is projected to give them an above-average ~2.5 WAR in 2016, and perhaps 3 WAR in 2017. They get a chance to upgrade to Donaldson, who has averaged a 7.5 fWAR over the last four seasons, with their young third baseman as part of the package they send back. Would they / should they not consider it?
And if they did consider it – would the Jays be better off trading for a player who has demonstrated an ability to play at the MLB level, and who could help the team immediately, rather than a package composed exclusively of prospects? Remember that the 2010 Baseball America top-10 prospects included Heyward, Posey and Strasburg … but also Jesus Montero, Brian Matusz, Desmond Jennings, Pedro Alvarez and Neftali Feliz.
So give me an example
As an example of the scenario I describe above: consider the Houston Astros and Alex Bregman. Bregman was originally a shortstop, but was moved to third when he joined the Astros (mumble, mumble, Carlos Correa, mumble, mumble). He is projected by ZiPS and Steamer to earn ~2.5 fWAR in 2017, and is under team control through 2022. Would a Bregman + deal make sense for both teams? Especially if the Jays were to consider moving Tulo as well, and moving Bregman to shortstop, where he might (read: might) have even more value?
The bottom line
Whether or not you completely believe that fangraphs rankings, Donaldson is currently worth a ton on the trade market. Just as acquiring him might well be the best trade the Jays ever made, trading him now could return the highest prospect value the Jays have ever received.