Oakland Capitulates and Toronto Capitalizes in Chapman-For-Prospects Swap

© D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the A’s made the biggest trade of the year when they sent Matt Olson to the Braves. This morning, they kept the momentum going and made the second-biggest trade of the year. Matt Chapman is headed to Canada in exchange for a four-prospect return:

Oakland doesn’t do anything by half measures, and with Olson and Chris Bassitt out the door, the team was in competitive limbo. Toronto was in search of a new infielder after Marcus Semien left in free agency. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the potential fit here, and the two teams were linked in trade rumors for much of the locked-out offseason.

From the Jays’ perspective, this trade gets them exactly what they wanted. After losing two of their top starting pitchers in free agency, they signed Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi to fill holes in the rotation. That still left them with a diminished offensive group, and there weren’t any obvious free agent fits to spruce things up. It may have been a coincidence, but as the Jays pursued Freddie Freeman and Kyle Schwarber, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was spotted doing third base drills, a sign of how intent the Jays were on shoehorning another hitter into their lineup, positional fit notwithstanding.

Chapman, on the other hand, jives perfectly with Toronto’s existing defensive lineup. With Semien gone, Cavan Biggio looks like the heir apparent at second base, which left third base for Santiago Espinal. He’s not a bad player by any means, but was probably the worst everyday regular the Jays were planning on fielding. Without sacrificing much depth from this year’s projected lineup, they’re instead fielding one of the best third basemen in the game.

Chapman is coming off of his worst year in the majors, though it was still a solid season. He hit .210/.314/.403, good for a 101 wRC+ in Oakland’s expansive confines. He provided his usual best-in-class defense at the hot corner and racked up 3.4 WAR overall, but given that his previous career offensive line worked out to a 126 wRC+, it was a disappointing year overall.

What happened? A 32.5% strikeout rate happened. Chapman has never been a bat control type, but he swung and missed quite a lot in 2021, to the tune of a 13.2% swinging strike rate. That’s the second straight year of rough strikeout numbers, following a 35.5% mark in a 152-PA cameo in 2020. He drew more walks and still hit for power, but it’s hard to accrue that much value when you strike out a third of the time, and that .210 batting average dragged him down so much that even with an enviable walk rate, he reached base at a below-average clip.

Chapman is under team control for two more years, but I had ZiPS maestro Dan Szymborski run five years of projections for completeness’ sake. Those projections see Chapman as 20% better than average with the bat, a rebound in offensive performance that will be accompanied by his ever-excellent defense:

ZiPS Projection – Matt Chapman
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .239 .330 .485 532 87 127 27 4 32 90 68 2 119 11 4.1
2023 .241 .331 .493 507 83 122 27 4 31 87 65 2 121 10 4.1
2024 .239 .329 .486 490 78 117 26 4 29 82 62 2 119 9 3.7
2025 .236 .325 .464 470 72 111 24 4 25 75 58 2 112 8 3.1
2026 .232 .319 .446 448 66 104 22 4 22 68 53 1 106 7 2.5

While the strikeout concerns are legitimate, Toronto still made a huge upgrade for the next two years, and potentially for more if Chapman signs an extension. Getting above-average on-base production and 30 homers out of your third baseman is a bargain most teams would accept even if you pay a cost in strikeouts, and Chapman adds the best defense in baseball to the package. With him in tow, we project Toronto for the third-most WAR from position players, up from fifth before they made the trade.

Crucially, Chapman also gives a boost to their chances in an extremely tight division race. With the their acquisition of Anthony Rizzo, the Yankees vaulted into a tie at the top of the AL East – before adding Chapman, we gave both teams a roughly 40% chance of winning the division. That division title is crucially important – in the new playoff format, the winner of the East is likely to receive a first-round bye, while the second place team braves a three-game Wild Card series. It’s also important to stay ahead of at least one of the other two division winners as well, and that too looked like a tight race, with the Astros and White Sox both projected within three wins of Toronto.

In other words, the Blue Jays are at the point of the win curve where additional help matters most. With so many evenly-matched teams at the top of the AL, every win could matter. The Blue Jays just found a way to add roughly three of them. The other AL contenders are surely furious at Toronto’s good fortune.

The A’s no longer count among those playoff contenders. A year ago, they won 86 games after a September swoon. The three years before that, they played at a 97-win pace. Now, they’ll likely qualify for the draft lottery for next year – they already look like the worst team in the AL West, and they’re not done trading players away.

I’m not really sure what Oakland’s end game is here. They weren’t in an obvious position to tear down; their best prospect depth is all near the majors, and they had a solid rotation to go along with two infield cornerstones with multiple years before free agency. They had to replace several losses from last year’s team – Mark Canha and Starling Marte, mainly – but Oakland has always been adept at constructing lineups that are more than the sum of their parts. You could easily imagine them competing for an AL West title with the whole group still intact.

Perhaps there was never any chance of the team signing either Olson or Chapman to a long-term contract. But that shouldn’t be the case. Oakland makes $45 million per season in local TV rights, with a chance to opt out of their deal after 2023 and secure a higher return if one is on offer. Every team receives roughly $60 million from national TV deals. The A’s are going to receive revenue sharing payments again thanks to the new CBA.

There’s incentive to build a competitive team here, too – the team and the city are in the middle of working out a new stadium deal, and the A’s are simultaneously weighing a move to Las Vegas, either in earnest or as leverage in extracting financing commitments from Oakland and Alameda County. Even from a cynical standpoint, it’s probably a good time to have a winning team in Oakland.

Instead, the team’s payroll has dropped to $60 million and looks to be headed lower. Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas are also rumored to be on the move, and they’re projected to earn roughly $15 million combined in arbitration this year. Trading them could drop the team’s payroll below $50 million, or half of what they take in from TV contracts before selling a single ticket. Revenue sharing would only increase that divide. Maybe they’re planning on using that money to do something else, but it’s hard to imagine the team going out and spending money on free agents after so ostentatiously getting rid of their current core.

The return from Toronto makes me like this tactic even less from Oakland. If you’re going to blow up the team you own, that’s your prerogative, but getting rid of Olson and Bassitt means they were surely sellers on Chapman, Montas, and Manaea – a 72-win team that constantly plays for tomorrow was never going to have Chapman on its roster, which meant the team had to accept whatever the highest offer was for him, almost regardless of what that offer was. The only other contender that desperately needed a third baseman was Philadelphia, and if the Phillies had any majors-ready prospects, they’d probably be in the majors — they have huge depth issues as it is, which makes them a poor fit for Oakland’s preferred depth-heavy returns.

Gunnar Hoglund, the headliner of the return, is a command-first starter who hasn’t yet thrown a pitch in professional baseball after Tommy John surgery last summer, when he was the Jays’ first round draft pick. He looked like a fast riser before surgery, though that obviously throws his timeline into question – we now project him for a 2024 arrival in the majors. Eric Longenhagen and Brendan Gawlowski gave him a 45 FV, outside of our Top 100 but clearly an interesting prospect.

Kevin Smith is the kind of player the A’s have a reputation for trading for: he’s already debuted in the majors (a forgettable 36-PA stint) and should be ready to contribute soon. He’s a batted-ball-data darling; he led the Blue Jays farm system in barrel rate and posted 21 homers in 410 PAs at Triple-A. We think he’s somewhere between a utility infielder and low-end regular, with his offense the highlight despite swing-and-miss issues. In other words, he’s a 40 FV prospect with upside.

Like Smith, Zach Logue is big league-ready. A 25-year-old starting pitcher, Logue boasts good command and one of the buzziest pitch types in baseball, a low arm slot fastball with a shallow approach angle. A plus changeup, underrated slider, and that sneaky fastball led to solid strikeout numbers, and he threw 125 innings across two levels last year, finishing with an excellent performance in Triple-A. Given Oakland’s evolving pitching situation, he’ll likely appear in the majors this year as a back-end starter. That earned him a 40 FV this offseason.

Kirby Snead is a classic A’s archetype, a reliever who they think they can turn into the team’s next unheralded closer. He’s mostly fastball/slider out of a low lefty arm slot, and he looked spectacular in the minors last year, striking out 36% of opposing batters. He also walked 10% of them, and had intermittent command issues in past years, but the bones of a good reliever are absolutely there. We have him as a 35+ FV, though Oakland values relievers more highly than our prospect scale does. He’ll almost certainly have a spot in the major league bullpen this year as a role-filling lefty who might be able to do work against righties to boot.

All four prospects who the A’s received are interesting, but none of them are can’t-miss names. There’s plenty of near-majors competence here, but little upside, unlike the return that Olson fetched. If you asked me to comb Toronto’s system for Oakland-like players, I might end up with these four names, but I’d also keep adding more names before getting to a package that I thought was fair in exchange for Chapman.

Oakland will probably win the dollars-and-WAR exchange on this trade, because I don’t doubt their ability to squeeze four league-average years out of Logue and Hoglund. Perhaps they’ll manage to right the ship faster than expected and compete for the playoffs next year with a new crop of young faces.

I’m pretty skeptical, though. As Oakland has showed repeatedly, a canny front office can construct the role-player side of the team from whole cloth using inventive acquisitions and forward-thinking drafting and development operations. The A’s front office is one of the best in the league at finding players who contribute more than expected to keep the major league team humming at the margins.

But every good Oakland team has been built around a core of stars. Finding the stars – that’s the tough part! When the A’s traded Josh Donaldson after the 2014 season, they kicked off a fallow period that didn’t end until Olson and Chapman established themselves in the 2018 season. For all of the front office’s immense talent at maximizing their roster, hitting on a few players to concentrate a great big pile of pre-free-agency WAR into a few positions seems key to their success.

Perhaps Oakland is planning on acquiring those stars in pure bulk by getting a huge volume of prospects back in every one of their trades. The Olson trade looked like an attempt to do just that – Shea Langeliers and Cristian Pache have star-level tools to go along with concerns that they might not be able to hit at the major league level. But this trade, to me, is out of step with that process. The players the A’s acquired here are awesome around the margins, but they’re mostly just that: really nice complementary players.

If you told me the A’s still expected to win 80-something games after trading Chapman, I’d absolutely understand this return, though I’d still find it light. Supplementing the core with cost-controlled role players is a time-honored way for low-budget teams to compete. But there’s no core anymore! Sean Murphy and Ramón Laureano are the best hitters left on the team, and it gets thin quickly after that. Those guys would have to develop quickly just to turn into the Chapman-and-Olson-level building blocks – and given their time left before free agency, it’s likely Oakland will trade them soon in any case.

This trade is a tale of two franchises headed in opposite directions. The Jays are on the rise, and they’re willing to move prospects to keep that rise going. They’re also conserving their best prospects – Gabriel Moreno, Orelvis Martinez, and graduate Alejandro Kirk are all staying put. They’ll need to prove they can do the things Oakland’s front office does so well – supplement the margins of the roster year after year to buttress their stars – but they’ve set up an excellent core to build around.

Meanwhile, Oakland has given up on the window of contention built around Olson and Chapman. The writing on the wall was already there, but today completes the capitulation. Perhaps they’ll develop two more superstars and spring back to prominence. They’ve consistently shown they’re one of the best front offices in baseball, penury and all. But I imagine A’s fans will be furious. It’s hard – so hard! – to find players like Olson and Chapman. Giving up on them two years before their team control expired will save ownership a pile of money and make it easier to compete on a low payroll five years from now using the prospects they’ve acquired in these trades, but that only locks in future years of low payrolls and cost-savings.

It’s a depressing future, one I’m sure those Athletics front office folks I’ve praised so much throughout this article would prefer not to witness. They’re making the most of the constraints they’re given. Those constraints are rotten, though, and between Chapman’s down 2021 and the thin demand for third basemen, they resulted in a light-ish return for one of the best and most popular A’s of recent memory.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sadtrombonemember
8 months ago

The A’s just traded a right-handed third baseman, a star in his own right, to the Blue Jays for a package distinguished more by depth than by star power.

Uh oh.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

At this rate, the Blue Jays would do well to acquire every single right-handed batter that has ever experienced any success for Oakland.

proiste
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I get the joke, but Chappy really isn’t a start at this point in his career. Definitely not like Donaldson was