Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson smacked his 200th career home run Sunday, a feat the Cubs were no doubt hoping he’d achieve in their uniform when they selected him 48th in the 2007 draft. The former Auburn Tiger never hit a single dinger for the club, though, and changed organizations a little over 12 months after the Cubs drafted him. It was exactly 11 years ago today, on July 8, 2008, that Chicago dealt Donaldson to Oakland. It’s now safe to say the Donaldson pickup has been among the best of A’s executive Billy Beane’s impressive tenure with the franchise.
Beane sent veteran right-handers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Cubs, acquiring Donaldson, outfielders Eric Patterson and Matt Murton, and righty Sean Gallagher in return. When the deal was consummated, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes noted it was the Cubs’ counterattack after the NL Central rival Brewers acquired lefty CC Sabathia from the Indians the day before.
Sabathia just about willed the Brewers to the playoffs in 2008, though the eventual World Series champion Phillies overmatched them in the NLDS. The Cubs did finish well ahead of the Brewers en route to an NL Central crown that season, but they also fell in the NLDS, losing in a sweep against the Dodgers. While Harden struggled during his lone start in that series, the oft-injured hurler was highly effective for the Cubs when he was healthy enough to take the mound. All told, he turned in 38 starts and 212 innings of 3.31 ERA ball with 11.0 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 as a Cub before leaving for the Rangers in free agency ahead of the 2010 season. Gaudin was nowhere near that productive, logging a 6.26 ERA in 27 1/3 innings with Chicago. He exited via free agency going into the 2009 campaign.
Both Hardin and Gaudin (especially the former) were useful A’s, but the team said goodbye to them despite possessing a 49-41 record at the time. Oakland was six behind the first-place Angels in the AL West and, in an era in which only one team earned a wild card, 3 1/2 back of a playoff spot. Beane insisted at the time it wasn’t a white flag move by Oakland, but the club fell apart thereafter and finished 75-86. However, Beane did say then, “I think we’ve taken a step forward for the next three to five years.”
It took a little longer than Beane wanted for the swap to bear fruit for the Athletics, though. None of Patterson, Murton or Gallagher amounted to much with the team. Donaldson, meanwhile, was a catcher prospect who took a half-decade from the trade to truly make his mark as a major league. While Donaldson did get to the majors in 2010 and then see extensive time with the A’s in 2012, his game took until 2013 to reach star-caliber heights. By then, Donaldson was no longer a catcher. The newly minted third baseman emphatically burst on the scene in ’13 with 7.3 fWAR and a 147 wRC+ in 668 plate appearances. Donaldson finished fourth in the AL MVP voting and helped the A’s to a 96-win, playoff-bound season in the process.
The A’s returned to the postseason in 2014, once again with significant help from Donaldson. He notched another 5.7 fWAR with a 130 wRC+ in 695 trips to the plate to wind up eighth in his league’s MVP balloting. Oakland couldn’t get past eventual AL champion Kansas City in the wild-card round that fall, though. Two months later, the A’s made the stunning decision to send Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, righty Kendall Graveman, infielder Franklin Barreto and lefty Sean Nolin.
Just as picking up Donaldson from the Cubs proved to be a steal for the Athletics, the same held true in the Blue Jays’ acquisition of the the player who became known as the Bringer of Rain. Donaldson went on to earn AL MVP honors in 2015, his debut season in Toronto and the first of two straight years in which the club advanced to the ALCS. He remained a force up north through 2017, but injuries marred his 2018, during which the rebuilding Blue Jays waved goodbye to the then-impending free agent in a trade with the Indians in August.
For Oakland, none of Lawrie, Graveman or Nolin delivered as hoped, nor have they produced much at any other major league stops since their stints with the Athletics concluded. The jury remains out on Barreto, just 23 years old, but the former top 100 prospect still hasn’t established himself as a major leaguer. However, perhaps Barreto will eventually realize his potential and make a Donaldson-like impact in the bigs. That seems highly improbable now, but nobody thought Donaldson would evolve into an elite player when Oakland scooped him up on this date 11 years ago.