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The time the Cubs traded Josh Donaldson as a throw-in

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No one could have guessed he’d be this good.

Josh Donaldson as a Cubs prospect at Photo Day in 2008
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Last year, the Cubs and Tigers were both amenable to minor league players Alex Lange and Paul Richan being used to acquire Nicholas Castellanos in July. One or both might, in other situations, been seen as a “throw-in” to a larger deal. This is a look at prospects in general as potential throw-ins, and specifically one player who turned out to be a lot better than anyone might have expected.

The throw-in isn't a major surrender. Many trade discussions circle around a recent early draft pick or big-money international signing. The throw-in isn't specifically that, but the Castellanos trade serves as a bit of history. Lange and Richan were known pieces, if you follow the Cubs pipeline. If you didn't, they were unfamiliar. There's no shame in never having heard of either of them. However, to assess a trade most properly, discussing information promptly is more useful than waiting years to start.

A reasonable reason for that is a different Cubs trade that involved a number of players going the other way. In 2008, the Cubs won the N.L. Central for the second season in a row. On July 8, the Cubs sent four players to the Athletics for Rich Harden and reliever Chad Gaudin. Harden was fantastic in 2008. The Cubs picked a rather bad time to have a team-wide slump, getting swept in three games by the Dodgers that October. However, the throw-in premise is to look at that trade as it appeared at the time of the swap.

Harden looked to be exactly what that team needed. Gaudin looked like he might extend the bullpen, a bit. Gaudin slumped with the Cubs, surrendering over a hit per inning, and five homers through 27⅓ innings. The perils of trading for relievers. However, the trade was about the four players who went the other way. The best way to assess a trade is with the most current information at the time of the trade.

Eric Patterson had appeared in 2007 and 2008 for the Cubs with a limited amount of success. The lightbulb hadn't gone on, and it wouldn't. Right-handed pitcher Sean Gallagher was similar to Patterson, in that he was a known piece, and was unfinished. Gallagher would have injury concerns with Oakland, and was of little consequence. Matt Murton had been around since the Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004, but never developed any steady playing time.

Any of the three could have developed differently, just as the Cubs could have played better in October 2008. Perhaps Patterson or Gallagher could have been five- or six-year regulars. They weren't. It boils to the fourth piece, and what should have been thought of him at the time of the trade.

With the 48th overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft, the Cubs selected Josh Donaldson from Auburn University. In the days of aluminum bat in college (as opposed to the current composite bats, which play closer to wooden bats), Donaldson had an OPS of 1.035 as a junior. The Cubs immediately switched him to catcher, and he wouldn't play a game at third in the Cubs system over 12 months or so. In his first partial season, he tore up the Northwest League with nine homers. In 2008, he was still a catcher in the Midwest League for Peoria, and had a batting average of .217 with an OPS of .625. To make the jump to "it was a bad trade because of losing Josh Donaldson," you have to make one of two compelling arguments: He would unlock his eventual skills with the Cubs development system as it was, or his star was going to shine brighter, later, whether he developed or not.

The Donaldson of the trade was not the Donaldson who has shredded MLB pitching for years, and still might going forward. He was a developing player, with potential and weaknesses, being played out of position, because the Cubs (presumably) didn't buy into his offense. Donaldson thrived under the coaching of the A’s instructors. It's a bold-and-not-necessarily-accurate assessment to think he'd have been better than Eric Patterson if he remained with the Cubs. Yes, it could have happened, but he became better rather quickly with the A's, upon being moved back to third base.

When discussing throw-ins, being realistic about an expectation for all players involved is useful. I didn't like losing Richan for Castellanos. He pitched worse in the Florida State League than with the Pelicans in 2019. Castellanos would only provide value if the Cubs, in my eyes, if the Cubs reached the playoffs and won a few games there, which never happened. His return was, realistically, doubtful.

Knowledge of both sides of the equation are important when considering throw-ins. If you're unable to locate useful information on all or most of the players in a swap, recuse yourself, and hope for the best. Remember that, in most cases, if a piece is added into an exchange, he likely has value. Discussing that value is the heartbeat of discussing throw-ins.