With the Blue Jays out of contention quickly in both 2017 and 2018, a trade of Donaldson was always likely at some point. Without an agreement on a long-term contract for Donaldson, it would have been very risky to hang onto him. The Jays’ had some concern, in fact, that, due to his recent struggles with injury, Donaldson would actually accept a one-year qualifying offer — a factor which changed the calculus somewhat as the non-waiver deadline approached. At the start of the season, retaining Donaldson would have seemed like a possible option even if the club didn’t remain competitive, because a characterstically productive Donaldson would have almost certain fetched a $50-plus million deal this offseason and commanded a compensation pick for Toronto.
At one point, with the Oakland A’s, Donaldson was in danger of becoming a minor-league journeyman, hitting .156/.206/.281 in a little cup of espresso in 2010 during his age-24 season. His .238/.336/.476 and .261/.344/.439 lines over his age-24 and -25 seasons for the Sacramento River Cats in the Pacific Coast League were extremely marginal for that league, not even at the level at which you’d call him a Ken Phelps All-Star, Bill James’ terms for minor-league sluggers who never received a real chance in the majors.
Nor did Donaldson shine at the start of 2012, getting significant playing time in the majors as a fill-in the first three months before finally returning to Triple-A having recorded a .153/.160/.235 line in an even 100 plate appearances with the parent club. For players in many organizations, this might have been the end for Donaldson. But the A’s are stubborn and Donaldson hit a legitimately excellent .335/.402/.598 for Sacramento, giving him another chance at third when Brandon Inge went down with an injury.
The rest is history. Donaldson became a superstar for Oakland, was eventually traded to the Blue Jays in a much reviled swap (for A’s fans), and continued his superstar-ish ways until very recently. The downside of all this has been the financial compensation; while he’s not exactly struggling to make ends meet, Donaldson didn’t complete his first full year of service time until after his age-27 season, making him much older than most superstars when he finally recorded his sixth year of service time. With his next contract likely to be his only long-term deal as a free agent, Donaldson might be inclined to take a one-year pillow contract this offseason to preserve his last opportunity to score a nine-figure deal.
Next time someone tells you that players always have great seasons in their walk years, point to Donaldson’s 2018 campaign before calling the police and having them hauled off to sabermetrics jail. (Do not actually try this. You’ll make 9-1-1 extremely unhappy with you.) Donaldson has, in fact, lost a lot of money this season. Just how much? Let’s let ZiPS tell us a tale of two tables.
Here are Donaldson’s projections from this preseason. ZiPS saw him as a star — albeit one in decline — and saw him getting a deal for roughly five years and $120 million when he hit free agency. It sounds like a lot of money, but I didn’t think this was unreasonable at the time. When I mentioned this on social media, many people thought it was too low.
This was before the Winter of Dreadful Silence, which saw a much lower $/WAR and continued signs that money and WAR valuations have become increasingly non-linear, something that we always predicted should happen, but had never actually occurred, with the relationships actually staying fairly linear. As I said, this appears to finally be changing, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, I’m not making any kind of market changes in the next table, in order to not compares apples and hand grenades.
ZiPS believes that Donaldson’s resumé is strong enough that he’ll still hit, but the playing time and decline have more downside risk at this point — natural for a player who, even if healthy after returning from his calf injury, will enter free agency well short of 200 games played over the most recent two seasons.
The money estimate for a five-year deal now, over the same time period, would be five years, $73 million, not exactly what Donaldson envisioned. In other words, you can make a statistical case that Donaldson’s 2018 season has cost him $40-50 million, not chump change for any player.
For the Cleveland Indians, the upside of a healthy Donaldson is tremendous. They may have an MVP third baseman already in Jose Ramirez, but he’d be an MVP candidate playing at any position except pitcher and maybe catcher. There are no superstars you can add to a team at this point of the season, and while Donaldson may not be a superstar right at this moment, he could be for the rest of the season. There’s no secret plan to winning in the postseason, despite what angry Royals fans shout at me, other than constructing the best possible team and hoping they catch fire. Adding a player with Donaldson’s potential increases the chances that Cleveland sets October ablaze.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.