Athletics would not be wise to give up on Lawrie

By Nick Ashbourne

It's been 1,576 days since Brett Lawrie debuted with the Toronto Blue Jays and he isn't a star yet. At this point it's wildly improbable that he ever will be.

Lawrie exploded onto the scene in 2011 with two months that electrified fans across the country and had #13 Blue Jays jerseys tumbling off the shelves in an avalanche of Canadiana. The bar wasn't just set too high for the third baseman it was utterly unattainable. 

Anything short of stardom was going to be a problem and between 2012 and 2014 the Langley native was far from a star. He was undoubtedly a good player, but he was a flawed one with injury problems and he never became the homegrown hero the Blue Jays faithful thought he would to be.

When he was shipped to the Oakland Athletics it was easy to envision a fresh start for the young third baseman where he could be unburdened from outside pressures and simply be appreciated for the player he was. Lawrie himself believed the move to Oakland would be a positive one because getting off the artificial turf at Rogers Centre would help him stay healthy. 

A very cursory glance at the statistics would seem to confirm this narrative came to fruition for Lawrie in 2015 as he set career highs in games played (149), home runs (16) and RBIs (60). However, a closer look reveals that his season was something of a train wreck and he bottomed out in the following categories:

  • Wins Above Replacement (0.8)
  • On-Base Percentage (.299)
  • Walk Rate (4.7%)
  • Strikeout Rate (23.9%)
  • Fielding Percentage (.937)
  • Errors (24)
  • Defensive Runs Saved (-6) 
  • Ultimate Zone Rating (-14.3)

Lawrie's approach at the plate and control of the strike zone deteriorated and his defence went from a significant plus to a serious problem. He wasn't helped by the fact he was forced to play too much second base, but he struggled at third as well.

Almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Lawrie. There is quite literally no way to sugarcoat his production offensively or defensively. However, it's peculiar that one ugly year has the Athletics thinking about trading him.

Whenever front office moves by the Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane, are evaluated it tends to be through the "Moneyball" lens. Unfortunately, that terminology is often warped, particularly by those who have not actually read the book.

The idea of "Moneyball" has nothing to do with walks as it is often asserted. It's about the Athletics' careful asset management in the face of financial limitations and their attempts to find undervalued players. In 2015 the market puts a great deal of value on players who get on base, so pursuing them is not a "Moneyball" strategy at all.

Instead of expecting the Athletics to be constantly searching for the next Kevin Youkilis we should be anticipating that they will manage their assets carefully. Trading Lawrie at this juncture would not appear to follow that pattern.

Shipping the Canadian at this point would be the ultimate case of selling low. In four of the five seasons he's appeared in the major leagues Lawrie has been at the very least a competent starter. Combining his league-average bat with excellent defence he's usually been a little bit more than that. To give a frame of reference, between 2011 and 2014 Lawrie ranked 17th among position players 25 and younger in WAR, right between Kyle Seager and Anthony Rendon.

To believe that as a result of a poor 2015 season he suddenly isn't worth a starting spot and the $3.9 million he's projected to earn in arbitration seems far-fetched. In fact, if Lawrie had spent his poor 2015 season with a different team, he'd seem like exactly the sort of cheap young talent a cash-strapped franchise like the Athletics would be eager to take a chance on. 

Unless they feel like he's irreparably broken, putting him on the block doesn't make much sense. It's possible that he is and that Oakland knows something the rest of us don't. Perhaps they are thinking of getting some value back while they still can before he has another poor campaign. When it comes to asset management Beane tends to get the benefit of the doubt.

In this case he might not deserve it. Lawrie is no franchise player, but he's a 25-year-old with upside who just proved he can stay healthy all season for the first time. He's been a more-than-useful regular in the not-so-distant past at a very young age. 

Perhaps this idea is simply the child of an overactive rumour mill churning away during a slow start to the offseason. However, if it isn't the Athletics' evaluation of Lawrie doesn't seem to gel with his track record. 

Though it's safe to assume Lawrie won't be an all-star, it's too early to give up on him as a starter. Even if the Athletics are hell-bent on trading the third baseman now is not the time to do it. Selling a player in the wake of by far his worst year isn't the best way to get a decent return.

More than anyone the Athletics are a team that's supposed to know better.

Nick AshbourneComment