Ross Atkins has traded some well-known Blue Jays at various trade deadlines. Some fans and media members criticized his ability to obtain fair value in exchange for those players. Is that disapproval warranted?
In Part 1 of this two-part series, I examined whether or not Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays received fair value in the 2018 trade-deadline deal that sent J.A. Happ to the New York Yankees in exchange for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney. I concluded that the return for Happ was fair when the transaction was completed. However, Blue Jays Management erred in that Happ should have been traded at the July 2017 trade deadline.
In Part 2, this article will analyse the August 31, 2018 trade of Josh Donaldson to Cleveland using the same approach that was used Part 1.
The Donaldson trade was unusual in two respects. First, because it occurred on August 31, Donaldson had to be placed on waivers before he could be traded. According to multiple reports, Donaldson cleared waivers in late August. In other words, no MLB team submitted a waiver claim. Second, Donaldson was plagued by injuries in 2018. When he was traded, Donaldson had not played a game since May 28 due to a calf injury; he did not play with Cleveland until September 11, 2018.
Donaldson’s trade value
I think that it is reasonable to conclude that Donaldson’s trade value was greatly diminished by August 31, 2018. Some of the factors that would have reduced his trade value include the following:
· He had only played in 36 games for the Blue Jays
· His fWAR was 0.8, his worst season since 2012
· His wRC+ was 105, which was just a little bit above average
· He was owed approximately USD 4 million on the balance of his 2018 contract
· Donaldson was a pending free agent
Multiple reports stated that no team put in a waiver claim because there were concerns that Donaldson was not healthy. The fact that teams were unwilling to risk USD 4 million in a waiver claim, despite not having to give up a player in that circumstance, is evidence that Donaldson was not highly valued (on a risk-adjusted basis) by the market. Also, the trade’s inclusion of cash, as an offset to Donaldson’s remaining salary, is consistent with the reports that teams were concerned with Donaldson’s health. Teams did not want to be liable for the full amount of the salary due because of the health concern.
There was no trade comparable due to Donaldson’s injury status on or about August 31.
I think that it is rational to conclude that Donaldson’s trade value was greatly diminished when he was sent to Cleveland. In my opinion, Atkins obtained fair value on the Donaldson trade when it was executed. That is another tick in the Atkins-does-not-get-taken-to-the-cleaners-at-the-trade-deadline column.
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The optimal time to trade
In general, I believe that more teams are looking for pitchers at the trade deadline than there are teams in pursuit of third basemen. The logic is that almost all contenders want to add pitchers (both starters and relievers) to add depth or improve the rotation and/or bullpen. This is one reason why trading a Donaldson in the off-season made sense because there are likely more teams in the hunt for a premier third baseman than there would be at the trade deadline.
Trade Donaldson at the July 31, 2017 trade deadline
When the July 31, 2017 trade deadline passed, Josh Donaldson was not having a Josh Donaldson season to that point. He had only played in 63 of the Blue Jays 106 games; he ranked 16th in fWAR (1.7) among MLB third basemen; his wRC+ was 119. I think it was reasonable for Blue Jays Management to conclude that more value could be obtained in a Donaldson trade after the 2017 season.
Trade Donaldson soon after the 2017 World Series
For the final two months of the 2017 season. Donaldson was first among MLB third basemen with his 3.4 fWAR and 188 wRC+. For the 2017 season, among MLB third basemen, Donaldson ranked 6th in fWAR (5.1) and his wRC+ was 151. By the end of the 2017 season, Josh Donaldson was an elite third baseman.
What teams could have been targeted?
The possible combinations of Donaldson deals after the 2017 season would be an almost endless pursuit. I would need an Enigma-like trade machine to do so. Therefore, I will list teams that had the following characteristics with respect to the 2017 season:
· Finished with 81 or more wins
· Had an fWAR of less than 4 from the third-base position
Bregman was an eliminating factor because, well, he’s Alex Bregman. Shaw was used as a disqualifier because he produced a 3.5 fWAR in 2017 and was a key piece in a 2016 trade with Boston. The Brewers were unlikely to replace Shaw, who was making less than USD 600,000 and was not eligible for arbitration until 2020.
Using these criteria, there are four candidates: Red Sox; Yankees; Cardinals; and Diamondbacks. Perhaps the Blue Jays discussed a Donaldson trade with these four teams in the off-season. Certainly, in hindsight, given all that ensued during the 2018 season, the Blue Jays would likely have garnered a higher return for Donaldson than Julian Merryweather if a trade was executed soon after the 2017 World Series.
I do not know if the Blue Jays seriously considered trading Donaldson at the July 2017 deadline. However, given that the Bringer of Rain was not having a Donaldson-like season when the trade deadline arrived, it would be a defensible judgement to wait until after the 2017 season to trade him. Certainly, Donaldson’s health issues in 2018 severely diminished his trade value as the season moved into late August 2018.
The key question is as follows: is it fair to criticize Blue Jays Management for not trading Donaldson prior to the start of the 2018 season? If my assessment is correct that the demand for acquiring a third baseman is likely to be higher in the off-season than it is at a trade deadline, then the Blue Jays stumbled. In my view, the Blue Jays received fair value for Donaldson on August 31, 2018; I believe they would have reaped a better return if Donaldson had been traded soon after the 2017 World Series.
The last word
Some people, be they fans or media, are skeptical that Ross Atkins can obtain fair value at the 2019 Major League Baseball trade deadline. These critics cite the 2018 Happ and Donaldson exchanges as examples to support their opinion. However, under the circumstances, Atkins garnered reasonable value in the Happ and Donaldson transactions. The Happ and Donaldson deals should not cause concern that Atkins will not obtain fair value at the upcoming trade deadline.