By: Chris Dagonas
Friday night, around 10:00pm, Eastern Time. The Toronto Raptors were closing out a tough loss to the Dallas Mavericks, one that saw star wing man DeMar DeRozan go down with a groin injury, and there was a window, all so small, that I saw opening in my mind. After a month of positive vibes, despite a ridiculously early snowstorm, the city of Toronto was about to enter a melancholy state. “We’re losing! DeMar’s hurt! The Leafs still suck! Why doesn’t Grantland write about us?!?!”
Then, a small stirring on Twitter. “Reports say…” “Sources indicate…” The nay-sayers stayed silent, waiting anxiously. Little mention, on my timeline at least, of the Raptors’ disappointing game and DeMar’s injury. A few minutes later, the reports were confirmed. All signs pointing to yet another massive Alex Anthopoulos manoeuvre.
The Blue Jays have traded, uh, headstrong third-baseman Brett Lawrie, along with a posse of prospects, to the Oakland Athletics for All-Star third baseman and fringe MVP candidate Josh Donaldson. This trade is about more than adding Donaldson, though. It’s about saying goodbye to Lawrie’s particular style of play. And, it’s about addressing the emotional instability of a team, and a fan base.
Think of the words we use to describe Toronto sports fans: passionate, emotional, loud, energetic. Vulgar. Angry. Possibly high. All true. Also, all words that have been used to describe Lawrie. He plays baseball like he’s trying to survive a World War Z-type of zombie apocalypse; he runs SO HARD, EVERYWHERE (remember, this is a sport that Manny Ramirez also played); he fires laser beam baseballs across the diamond; he swings the bat as if he’s trying to rip his bare arms out of his tattoo sleeves.
These are all positive attributes, I swear. But there are more than a few negatives that come along with this type of play. Lawrie missed more than half of the 2014 season with finger and oblique injuries, and has spent time on the Disabled List in each of the past three seasons. In some players, this can be viewed as bad luck. In Lawrie’s case, well…
Lawrie has also had some issues controlling his behaviour. He was suspended four games in 2012 for throwing his helmet, and accidentally hitting an umpire with it, after a called third strike. He has also had instances of angry tweets and tirades, sometimes against his own fans. And, he is the only player I can think of to inspire this type of headline:
Look, I’m not going to chastise the guy for giving his heart and soul to baseball. It’s what so many writers and critics look for in players. But with Lawrie, it was starting to become frustrating to receive all-or-nothing. Especially when his all was not looking all too impressive.
In 43 games in 2011, Lawrie exploded onto the Blue Jays as a 21-year-old. Fans loved him for his hustle, and for his production, which seemed to signal bigger things to come. In 2012, he posted his best season to date, in terms of Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and WAR. Then, “injuries derailed him” for two seasons, and everything took a significant dip, with the exception of home runs, which rose from 11 in 2013 (in 401 at-bats) to 12 in 2014 (in 259 at-bats).
The trouble with Lawrie is the inconsistency. He could be on cloud nine, smashing home runs one week, then suddenly hit a 10-day slump (or a 15-day DL stint), and lose focus.
Ironically, the Toronto Blue Jays fan base, of which I count myself a part, is very much the same. Don’t see the connection? Go to the sold out Blue Jays home opener in April, then go to another (virtually empty) game a week or two later. That is the epitome of inconsistency.
Hopefully, a stable Toronto Blue Jays team will lead to a stable Toronto Blue Jays fan base. Again, I can’t be too negative about fans that want their teams to win (even 76ers fans are tired of losses, master plan and all). But the fans of the Jays so often veer dangerously between emphatic highs (“Who has a better lineup than us, bro?”) and depressed, angry lows (“Fuck this team, when do the Leafs start?”) with interspersed dumping of beer on opponents, and throwing stuff on the field, often at our own players. I’m not saying this is all some massive subtweet by Anthopoulos to tell the fans to calm down a bit when things go wrong. But it’s worth asking if the manic highs and lows of the Blue Jays over the past few years begin with the results on the field, or with the fans? Of course results on the field affect the fans, but can the fans also affect the players? And to what degree? The fans, and media, pretty much ran former catcher JP Arencibia out of town last season. Maybe Anthopoulos was moving swiftly to gain control of the next Blue Jays scapegoat, and ship him off before the relationship turned too negative. The player taking Lawrie’s place falls on a completely different side of the personality spectrum.
Josh Donaldson has taken the long path to MLB stardom. He was drafted in 2007 as a catcher by the Chicago Cubs, before being traded to the Oakland Athletics organization in 2008. He converted to third base in 2012, and has been Oakland’s starting third-baseman since then. He has missed a mere eight games in the past two seasons, and has contributed top-10 MVP candidate statistics in both.
He does not play a flashy game. He is rarely seen in highlight packages, except when
hitting home runs smashing dingers. He does not steal bases. What he does do is get on base consistently, hit 25-30 home runs, and play steady, reliably above-average, sometimes excellent defense.
In other words, Donaldson, along with last week’s hot free agent topic, Russell Martin, should bring stability to a talented, but streaky Toronto team from last year.
Two winters ago, I wrote about the deals that brought RA Dickey, Jose Reyes and company to the Blue Jays. I wrote that Anthopoulos was pretty much going all in with those moves, and would have to have playoff results swiftly to prove his worth. I was wrong on that. Despite the fact that the Jays have not made the playoffs during Anthopoulos’ reign, and many years before that, he has shown that he is able to make clever, interesting, positive moves consistently. That has value, too. He has bought himself, in my opinion, another two years at least.
Baseball writers are charting this as a win-win trade, perhaps buoyed by Oakland GM Billy Beane’s track record of intelligent moves. To me, the Jays have received the only known quantity in this trade. Is it possible that Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman become reliable relievers? Sure. Could Franklin Barretto be a franchise shortstop? Possibly. Can Brett Lawrie stay healthy, calm, and consistent enough to be a year-long contributor? Maybe. But Josh Donaldson is exactly who everyone knows him to be; one of the world’s best third-basemen. He has been for a few seasons. And he is under contract with the Toronto Blue Jays for four more years. All of that we know for sure. And knowing is exactly what we need.