The Cardinals are trying to trade for Giancarlo Stanton. They’ve made no secret of their off-season plan to consolidate some of their young talent into a trade for an impact hitter, and Stanton seems to be Plan A. But they aren’t the only team trying to trade for the reigning NL MVP, and reports have suggested the Giants might be the most aggressive bidder so far. Additionally, Stanton might have some preference for playing on the west coast, and since he has a full no-trade clause, Stanton could just veto a trade to STL if he thought he had some chance of going to SF instead.
So the Cardinals might want Giancarlo Stanton and even line up best with the Marlins in a trade, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And thus, the Cardinals should have some kind of Plan B. So let me suggest that, while the Blue Jays continue to say they aren’t trading their star player, the Cardinals should be pestering Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins about making a deal for Josh Donaldson.
Because a Donaldson-to-STL trade might make even more sense than a Stanton trade.
The Cardinals already have average-ish players penciled in at every spot on the infield, with Jedd Gyorko (+2.2 WAR), Paul DeJong (+2.4 WAR), Kolten Wong (+2.1 WAR), and Matt Carpenter (+2.6 WAR) slotted in at third base, shortstop, second base, and first base respectively. The presence of the first three is what pushes Carpenter to first base, which blocks off playing time for Jose Martinez and Luke Voit, each of whom showed some promise last year, and might deserve an expanded role in 2018. So, on one hand, one could argue that a Donaldson fit in St. Louis is tougher than a Stanton fit, since the team is already set with decent players at each spot, plus a desire to find room for depth guys who don’t currently have regular jobs.
On the other hand, this depth is exactly what makes a trade with the Blue Jays potentially viable, because the Jays have made it clear they aren’t interested in a rebuild style of trade, and would probably need to be convinced that they weren’t abandoning 2018 in order to deal away their best player. And since the Cardinals have excess infielders with some legitimate 2018 value, there might be a deal here that legitimately helps both teams.
If the Jays trade Donaldson, they’d obviously have a hole at third base, at least until Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is ready for the majors. But with the durability issues of Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki, the team also needs protection at both middle infield spots, and Travis’ problems in particular mean they probably need a guy who could effectively play second base everyday if (or when) Travis gets hurt again. So, realistically, the Blue Jays need to add an infielder this winter, and if they’re subtracting Donaldson, that would mean they’d need to bring in two new infielders to fill out their roster.
And that makes these two teams a particularly good fit as trade partners, because it’s not too hard to put together a package of players from St. Louis that would fit Toronto’s needs pretty well, while also allowing the Cardinals to consolidate their Major League depth without having to destroy their farm system in a trade for a rental. Let’s look at what that kind of deal might look like for both sides.
Gyorko is the guy who probably makes the most sense for Toronto in any Donaldson deal, given his experience at 3B, SS, and 2B. The Jays could slot him in as Donaldson’s replacement to begin the year, but if Guerrero forces his way to the big leagues — as Rafael Devers did last year — then he could easily be the middle infield alternative for when Tulo and Travis aren’t healthy. His positional flexibility makes him an ideal fit for the Jays roster, and thus I’d imagine he’d probably be required in any deal Toronto would be interested in making.
But Gyorko isn’t the only Cardinal who would fit well in Toronto. Matt Carpenter also looks like a guy who could give the Blue Jays significant flexibility, and a Gyorko/Carpenter package offer for Donaldson could be the kind of win-win deal that might help both sides.
From Toronto’s perspective, trading Donaldson for Gyorko and Carpenter would give them a projected starting infield of Gyorko, Tulowitzki, Carpenter, and Justin Smoak, with Travis around to play second against some tough lefties until he proves durable enough for an expanded role. And, perhaps just as interestingly, it gives the team significantly better alternatives for when Tulowitzki isn’t in the line-up.
Right now, we project the Jays to get 350 replacement-level plate appearances from Ryan Goins and Richard Urena, and that’s with a very optimistic 525 PA projection for Devon Travis; most of those extra at-bats could end up going to Gyorko instead, with Carpenter shifting to third base to give Travis regular time if he proves healthy, or simply promoting Guerrero to the big leagues if he dominates the higher levels of the minors to begin the year. With Gyorko and Carpenter’s ability to move around the infield, Travis and Guerrero could effectively replace Goins and Urena, giving the team a significantly higher potential for infield production when Tulo isn’t healthy.
And while turning Donaldson into two lesser big leaguers might not be the most popular decision, I think the 2018 Blue Jays might be just as good with Gyorko and Carpenter as they would be with Donaldson.
For one, Carpenter is probably more valuable as a second or third baseman than a first baseman, so his value would be higher in Toronto than his +2.6 WAR forecast in STL would suggest. Playing second or third base, it’s not hard to imagine Carpenter putting up a +3 to +4 WAR season, especially if he’s recovered from the shoulder issue that bugged him throughout 2017. Instead of turning Donaldson into two of the Cardinals average players, a healthy Carpenter — playing the positions that he brings the most value at — could be more like trading Donaldson for a still-very-good player and a nice second piece.
The deal also works well for Toronto beyond 2018. By moving Donaldson and getting a couple of guys who can play other infield spots, third base becomes Guerrero’s spot whenever he’s ready for it. And they’d have all kinds of flexibility for 2019 and 2020, with four potential middle infielders available to share 2B/SS, or Carpenter could flex back over to first base if Justin Smoak goes back to being pre-2017 Justin Smoak. Or, if everyone stays healthy and plays at a high level, they’d have an alternative to running Kendrys Morales out there everyday. More likely, Tulo and Travis show they aren’t able to be counted on as everyday players, and the team could run out Gyorko and Carpenter up the middle with Guerrero and Smoak as the corners, with Tulo around for when the team would rather put their best defensive team on the field.
Salary wise, Gyorko and Carpenter will combine to make about the same amount Donaldson will make in 2018, so it’s not a big financial shift for either team’s budget. The Blue Jays take on $28 million in committed salary in 2019, but for two players who would earn more than that in free agency, and get options on both for 2020 if they remain productive. In the best case scenario for Toronto, they turn one year of Donaldson into six years of Gyorko and Carpenter, and probably don’t get significantly worse in the short-term to get that long-term upgrade.
For the Cardinals, the extra years of control at value-but-not-bargain prices aren’t as necessary, since the team has in-house alternatives ready to go. If they swapped Gyorko and Carpenter for Donaldson, their 2018 infield would be Donaldson-Dejong-Wong-Martinez, with Voit around as a potential platoon partner for Martinez if they don’t think he’d succeed in an everyday role. That’s pretty clearly a better group than they’ll run out as is, as consolidating value into one roster spot allows some decent players to take on expanded roles.
If the Cardinals didn’t win in 2018 and Donaldson walked at the end of the year, the deal could backfire on St. Louis, since they’d enter the year without an obvious third baseman. But given their history of developing decent players out of nowhere, the Cardinals can probably run that risk in order to get Donaldson’s value for this coming year, plus the right to try and sign him long-term before he hits free agency.
Given his age, Donaldson isn’t going to get the $295 million that Stanton is still owed on his contract, and the reality is that he’s just a better overall player, so landing Donaldson and signing him for something like $200 million might be a better investment than giving up significant young assets to convince the Marlins to pay down Stanton’s deal to that level. Obviously, Stanton is younger, but his long-term value is also diminished by the opt-out clause in his contract, since if he stays healthy, you’re only getting him for three years before he hits free agency. And Donaldson can’t veto a trade to St. Louis, like Stanton can.
The Cardinals might very well be better off giving up pieces off their Major League roster to land Donaldson than they would be trading impact prospects for Stanton. The Blue Jays may very well be better off turning Donaldson into multiple solid players who can help the team both now and beyond 2018. While Stanton is getting all the attention, it seems to me there might be a better win-win deal between St. Louis and Toronto than St. Louis and Miami.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.