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Analyzing the Josh Donaldson Signing

Josh Donaldson signs with Twins

So the final gigantic bazillion-dollar domino of the free agent market has fallen. On Tuesday, (a pretty momentous day for baseball, all things considered), Josh Donaldson agreed to a four-year, $92 million deal with the Minnesota Twins (with a $16 million club option for 2024). The impact of Donaldson’s signing for Minnesota is obvious: he fits neatly into an extremely potent lineup and allows the team to move Miguel Sanó‘s depleted-uranium glove across the diamond to first base. Donaldson’s defense was worth 8 Outs Above Average last year, so he’ll help Minny improve on one of its biggest problems from 2019 (namely, atrocious infield defense).

And he’ll probably hit pretty well too. That seems important to mention.

Looking at how Donaldson will help the Twins is kind of boring, though. He’s really good, and everyone knows he’s really good, and he’ll help his team in 2020 barring some kind of catastrophic injury. The more interesting stories are found with the teams who lost out on the Donaldson sweepstakes.

The Nationals

Josh Donaldson Nationals
Image courtesy of The Athletic. Embarrassing edits courtesy of the author.

The Nationals were one of the most obvious fits for Donaldson’s services. After Anthony Rendon signed his own mega-deal with the Los Anaheim Angeles of Angelheim, the Nats were left with a 6.3 WAR hole at third base going into 2020. But hey, there was a free agent who accrued a nearly-identical 6.1 WAR in 2019! And he plays the same position as Rendon!

The Nationals were one of the hot contenders for Donaldson in the past few months, but they couldn’t snare him and there aren’t any other ~6 WAR third basemen hanging around the free agent market. So how do the Nats fill that hole in their lineup?

Well, Washington’s been very busy on the free agent infielder front during the winter. They resigned newly-minted playoff legend Howie Kendrick in December and reeled in Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Eric Thames in a matter of January days. The Nationals also have an infield lock in shortstop Trea Turner, so they’re staring down something of a logjam. Even more concerning is the fact that there isn’t a clear-cut third baseman among the crowd of new signees (and incumbents). Kendrick and Cabrera were both awful in their limited 2019 runs at third, and hearing “third baseman Eric Thames” is somewhat akin to hearing “shortstop Nelson Cruz.”

Carter Kieboom third base
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Word ’round the campfire is that the Nationals are planning on giving top prospect Carter Kieboom some time at the hot corner in 2020, but Washington will definitely want a safety net in case Kieboom’s 2020 goes the way of his 2019 (-1.0 WAR in 43[!!!!!!!!!!] plate appearances). Whether that safety net is Asdrúbal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick or someone else is currently unknown, but a safety net should definitely be in place.

The Nationals aren’t too badly hurt by Donaldson’s signing, but it would behoove them to take a long, hard look at their 2020 infield structure and figure out how they can best adapt to Rendon’s departure.

The Braves

Josh Donaldson Braves
Image courtesy of Gene J. Puskar and the Associated Press.

The Braves are the team most obviously damaged by Donaldson’s departure, since Donaldson played for Atlanta in 2019 and the team doesn’t have the same overabundance of infielders as their division-mates to the north. At present, the version of their active roster listed on mlb.com has only four infielders on it, with zero backups. Their projected starter at third is -0.7 WARrior Johan Camargo. Choosing this one number to summarize Camargo’s production is unfair since he’s only 26 and 2019 was his first bad year in the majors, but the fact remains that Braves should be looking for infield reinforcements in 2020.

Short of a trade for Nolan Arenado (which, in fairness, seems more likely by the day), it’ll be very tough for Atlanta to replace Donaldson’s production at the hot corner. The free-agent third baseman cupboard is flat-out empty outside of, like, Cheslor Cuthbert, so the Braves might need to get creative here. An interesting solution at third could be Pablo Sandoval, who just turned in a perfectly solid 1.5 WAR campaign. He’s pretty terrible defensively, but that 1.5 WAR was racked up in only 296 plate appearances. A Sandoval signing would be a not-entirely-senseless play for some 2020 upside.

If the Braves feel like getting weird, a reunion with Charlie Culberson could work. Culberson didn’t play third in 2019, but he has some experience (read: 360 innings) at the hot corner. His offense isn’t good, but it’s not unplayable either, and he can provide positional flexibility to a team in need of it. Another free agent who could help out is Neil Walker. Walker isn’t exactly Matt Chapman either, but he had a nice offensive bounceback in 2019 and could turn out to be a good buy-low option.

The Fringes

Josh Donaldson Dodgers
Image courtesy of The Athletic. Embarrassing edits courtesy of the author.

Weirdly enough, the Dodgers were in on the Donaldson racket for a time (although they seem to be “in” on every major free agent every winter and never come away with anything). From the sounds of things, the Dodgers were thinking about shifting Justin Turner back to his old home at second base and placing Max Muncy at first. David Freese‘s retirement made this a vaguely realistic proposition, but Justin Turner will be 35 in 2020 and hasn’t logged any time at second since 2015. Donaldson would have made a terrifying L.A. lineup even terrifying-er, but his signing wouldn’t have been especially practical from a defensive standpoint.

Finally, the Rangers were in on Donaldson towards the beginning of the winter, but they effectively knocked themselves out of the sweepstakes when they signed Todd Frazier a few days ago. Donaldson would have added a potent bat and some stability to an unstable, top-heavy Texas lineup. Frazier is a significantly better option than, say, Sean Rodriguez at third base, but he’s still not nearly as appealing a player (although he does have one of the more badass nicknames in MLB).

Frankly, every team not based in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Denver, San Diego or Oakland could use Josh Donaldson at third, but there were only a few clubs with that special combination of a playoff window and payroll flexibility. The Twins made a very good, very splashy move that’ll make them better for years to come, and the rest of the league will have to adjust around them.

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