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What the Josh Donaldson trade means for the Mariners

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(hint: a lot)

dagNABBIT
dagNABBIT
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Holy shit, you guys. Holy shit.

It's gotta be hard to be an Athletics fan. I mean, sure, they have a brilliant GM, and they've been really successful for the last few years. Given where the Mariners have been for the last decade-plus, you'd think I'd be jealous, but... nope. See, a big part of my fandom is forming emotional attachments to players - from stars like Ichiro and Felix to up-and-comers like Miller and Walker right down to scrubs like Mune and Wily Mo Pena. And A's fans don't get to do that. Or, they do, but then they invariably get burned. A fan of any other team gets attached to a star player, that player's probably gonna stick around for a while. An A's fan gets attached to a star player, and... bam. Beane'd.

The perfect example, I think, has been this last week's pair of AL West 3B transactions. The Mariners' division has an unusually strong crop of third basemen, featuring all three 2014 AL All-Stars. One of them is old and on the Rangers. One of them is boss, and his team decided to reward his bossness with a $100M extension. One of them has been the third best player in the sport over the last two years, and has four years of team control remaining, and is the only well-known player on his contending team. That one just got traded for prospects. Billy Beane is... I mean, you have to admire the guy (for his guts, if nothing else), but I don't know if I have the emotional resilience necessary to root for a team he runs.

So. Josh Donaldson is gone, and Beane says he's planning to make more dramatic changes, and sources around the game say he's re-tooling the entire club. Jeff Samardzija is going to move. A left-handed slugger is going to move. This is big. Any time a division rival trades away a superstar, it has an impact on a team's offseason plans, but this is something special. A whole world of opportunities just opened up for the Mariners.

Let's have a look, shall we?

1) The path to the division just got easier.

No two ways about it: the Athletics got worse today. (If they'd gotten better, the trade would not have included international super-prospect Franklin Barreto.) Depending on Brett Lawrie's health, the 2015 Oakland Athletics probably just lost somewhere between two and four wins. Certainly their players seem convinced that a rebuild is underway:

For his part, Beane doesn't seem like a GM in win-now mode:

When we went into this winter, we had to take a look at where we are and where we're headed, and we have to keep in mind we were 11 games behind the Angels last season and it took the last day to hold off the Mariners, and given the losses that we have, in Lester and Gregerson, certainly Jed, some credible positions, and given our payroll, we didn't think it was possible to sort of add to the current group to make up an 11-game difference, so what we thought we had to do was do something that wasn't timid and something that hopefully got us in a position that we had a team with a chance to get better with each day as opposed to one that was maybe starting to deteriorate.

Those don't sound like the words of a GM focused solely on winning in the short term. It sounds like Beane and co. have taken a little emphasis off of 2015 in favor of increased emphasis on future performance, and if that's true, then the Mariners' road to the 2015 playoffs is about to get significantly easier.

The Mariners are already in a win-now position: ideally, they want to do most of their winning before the contracts they've given to Felix and Cano start to become financial constraints rather than financial boons. Until now, the only thing that was holding them back from gunning for it in 2015 was the relative strength of the division. With Oakland and Los Angeles also going all-in for 2015, it might've been wise for the Mariners to consider waiting out Los Angeles' declining players before pushing all of their chips to the center of the table. Now that one of the competitors is letting up, though? Even more than before, it's time for the Mariners to go for it. The front office needs to make the team better, and they need to do it now.

2) The free agent market is shifting.

Let's take a look at things from a more Canadian perspective. The Toronto Blue Jays have now added arguably the free agent market's best position player and definitely the trade market's best position player in the space of two weeks. Their lineup now looks like this.

# Name Pos Steamer WAR Note
1 Reyes SS 3.0 AL's best SS*
2 Donaldson 2B 5.6 AL's best 3B
3 Bautista RF 5.4 AL's best RF
4 Encarnacion DH 3.7 AL's best DH
5 Martin C 3.9 AL's best C
6 Smoak 1B 0.6 ...well,
7 Dirks LF 1.0 that
8 Pillar CF 1.4 de-escalated
9 Goins 2B 0.1 quickly

*technically, 2nd to Erick Aybar by 0.1 WAR, but c'mon. C'monnnnnn

Think they're gonna stop right there? No, I don't either. That right there is a team in need of some help towards the bottom of the lineup. Toronto could really use, I dunno, a left-handed hitter, maybe a guy who can play left field. Would be cool if he was familiar with the park and the clubhouse. Wonder where they'd find a guy like oh hey didn't see you there Melky Cabrera!

Of course, the Melkman is also a known target of our very own Seattle Mariners. Presumably, Toronto's sudden improvement just significantly boosted his odds of returning to Toronto... and reduced the chances of him coming to Seattle. With Melky gone, the only real "outfield bat" left to sign would be Nelson Cruz, which, ew.

Same thing applies to the pitching market. The Blue Jays' rotation is (frankly) bad. They've been tied to Ervin Santana in the past, and I'd be quite surprised if they didn't try again this year. They probably don't have the kind of cash necessary to grab one of the top-shelf starting pitchers, which means they'll likely be dipping into the same mid-market SP pool that we at LL think the Mariners should be drawing from. Now that Donaldson's on board, it's all the more important for the Jays to fix their rotation. If Oakland is trading Samardzija (as rumored), they'll need a replacement starter too. What I'm saying: this move would seem to precipitate a bunch of free agent signings, which could leave the Mariners up the creek without anyone to take their money.

Luckily, the free agent market isn't the only way to acquire talent...

3) Three-way trades are out there.

Not gonna lie: this is the reason this post had to go up today, instead of two or three days from now. Now that we know Oakland is making big moves on the trade market, a whole bundle of Mariners-related trade possibilities have opened up, and things could start moving fast. To be more specific, the "retooling" Athletics make a hell of a lot of sense as a third leg in a three-way trade with the Mariners and either the Red Sox or Braves.

Everyone and their grandma knows that the Mariners are on the hunt for a right-handed cleanup hitter. Unfortunately for Jack Zduriencik and co., this year's free agent market for offense has moved very rapidly, and the only right-handed sluggers left on the market today are Nelson "land mine" Cruz and Michael "burned bridges" Morse. As such, the Mariners have started getting linked in trade rumors to every team with a right-handed bat to spare. Chief among their rumored targets are Boston's Yoenis Cespedes and Atlanta's Justin Upton. The problem? Atlanta and Boston both want starting pitching, and (contrary to popular belief) Seattle has none to spare. If the Mariners were to trade away a starting pitcher, their opening day #5 SP would be Erasmo Ramirez. #6 would be Jordan Pries. That would not be an acceptable situation. Somehow, Jack Z needs to acquire a right-handed cleanup hitter without giving away a starting pitcher.

Enter Oakland. Jeff Samardzija is reported to be on the trade block, and Billy Beane's spent the last several months accumulating a remarkable number of young upside pieces for his rotation. The A's certainly have the pieces necessary to convince Boston or Atlanta to ship out a righty bat. On the other side of the coin, Oakland's primary need is for a long-term shortstop solution. Conveniently, the Mariners have two - one of whom, I've been told, Beane has tried to trade for in the past. It's almost too perfect not to happen.

Boston is known to be looking for short-term top-of-rotation SP upgrades, so they'd probably be all in on Jeff Samardzija. The Shark is a remarkably similar pitcher to the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann, a player who (coincidentally) Dave Cameron just suggested as a third major piece in a three-team Mariners/Nationals/Red Sox trade. Cameron's same framework, I think, can be reworked ever so slightly to fit the A's instead of the Nats. Like so:

BOS receives: Jeff Samardzija, John Jaso, Danny Farquhar
SEA receives: Yoenis Cespedes, Mike Napoli
OAK receives: Brad Miller, Garin Cecchini

Boston gets its top-shelf SP, a lefty bat who can come off the bench, and a controllable relief ace for two major league rentals with nowhere to play and a blocked prospect. Seattle fills both of its major holes, getting the kind of right-handed power that won't normally come to the northwest while dealing only from positions of depth. Oakland gets two solid young infielders, one they've liked for a while and one who can step up at 3B if Lawrie gets hurt.

Atlanta's a slightly trickier proposition, since they're not in the same win-now mode as Boston and thus might not crave the Shark quite as much. Except, hey wait a minute:

Upton and Gattis, you say? With Samardzija as bait? Well, the Athletics did want a little right-handed bop - that is why they signed Billy Butler, after all. Let's see...

ATL receives: SP Jeff Samardzija, OF Michael Saunders, SP Jarrod Parker
SEA receives: OF Justin Upton, OF Craig Gentry
OAK receives: SS Chris Taylor, C/OF Evan Gattis

Atlanta adds a short-term top-of-rotation starting pitcher with a decent chance to re-sign, an outfielder to hold the fort until their new park opens, and a high-upside injury flier. Seattle adds a cleanup hitter and a plus-plus fourth outfielder at the expense of a spare shortstop and a guy they can't wait to be rid of. Oakland gets their young SS (although not the one they've liked in the past) and their right-handed bat. Of course, if you don't think Atlanta has any interest in short-term pieces...

ATL receives: SP Sonny Gray
SEA receives: OF Justin Upton
OAK receives: SS Brad Miller, C/OF Evan Gattis

Oakland would never move Gray, you say? He's their best player, you say? Scroll up and look at the title of this article again. Billy Beane is a mad genius, and Gattis + Miller is the kind of talent package that makes mad men do mad things.

By the way: I'm not sure I like any of those three trades for the Mariners. I'm not suggesting them because I necessarily think they'd be good moves. I'm suggesting them because they're really, really obvious. We know that the Mariners want right-handed power bats, and we know that they want to dump Michael Saunders, and we think that they're willing to deal a shortstop, even if they probably shouldn't be. (Personally, I don't want the Mariners to move Brad Miller, period, but that's another article.) Point is, whether we like them or not, these are all deals that I could see happening... and that I couldn't have seen happening before last night's big trade.

This is why the winter months are so challenging, for front offices and fans alike. This is why we didn't have a 2015 Lookout Landing Offseason Plan. Any hour of any day, all winter long, the entire market could shift dramatically, and suddenly all preconceptions go flying out the window. I don't think anyone saw this trade coming. Heck, two weeks ago the Athletics told the Blue Jays that Donaldson was untouchable. But the winds of change came a'blowin in Oakland, and now Seattle's starting to feel 'em too. The question is: can Jack Z and the Mariners harness those winds? To what end?

I don't know. You don't either. But if I were a betting man, I'd put money on this: we're about to have an exciting couple of weeks.