One year ago, Josh Donaldson was coming off of a very good season, hitting 50% better than league average on his way to 5.1 WAR despite missing six weeks early in the year with a right calf injury. If Donaldson had hit free agency then, he would have been the best position player on the market and likely would have bested J.D. Martinez’s contract despite being a couple of years older. But he didn’t, and after an injury-riddled 2018, the soon-to-be-33 year-old surveyed the market, and opted for a one-year, $23 million deal with the Atlanta Braves, per Ken Rosenthal.
Donaldson faced a difficult decision this winter. He could have tried to cash in on his previous success and get the highest guarantee possible. In our review of the Top 50 Free Agents, both the crowd and Kiley McDaniel assumed that route, and predicted three year deals with an average annual value between $18 and $20 million. It’s possible that Donaldson preferred the Braves for personal reasons, having grown up in Alabama. Holding out for a better deal would have included some risk for Donaldson if this year’s market proves to be slow like last year’s did. The middle ground with a player opt-out after one season might have made the most sense, but that also might have taken more time to develop and lessened the guarantee in the first year. The deal Donaldson did strike with the Braves is not devoid of risk, however.
By settling for a one-year deal now, Donaldson is betting on himself. He’s betting that he’s still the player who put up the second-most WAR in baseball from 2013 to 2017, averaging nearly seven wins per season. Donaldson did show some of that form with Cleveland at the end of the year, putting up a 149 wRC+ in the season’s final month. Those 60 September plate appearances were the only PAs for Donaldson in the second half as a strained left calf put him on the disabled list in late May. Donaldson isn’t wrong to bet on himself. Here are his stats since 2013. Spot the outlier.
|2013||Athletics||668||24||11.4 %||16.5 %||147||7.2|
|2014||Athletics||695||29||10.9 %||18.7 %||130||5.7|
|2015||Blue Jays||711||41||10.3 %||18.7 %||154||8.7|
|2016||Blue Jays||700||37||15.6 %||17.0 %||157||7.6|
|2017||Blue Jays||496||33||15.3 %||22.4 %||151||5.1|
|2018||Blue Jays||159||5||13.2 %||27.7 %||105||0.8|
|2018||Indians||60||3||16.7 %||16.7 %||149||0.5|
Donaldson has been consistently great except for a short period at the beginning of the year. In context, September doesn’t look like a fluke, but rather a continuation of what Donaldson can do when he’s healthy. Donaldson’s health is a big question, however. In each of the last two seasons, Donaldson has hit the disabled list, suffering from calf injuries in both legs that could linger into future seasons. And he’ll turn 33 years old next month, likely making him more of a risk to get hurt or simply decline.
There are many way to look at aging baseball players. The below graph shows one perspective, with the number of two-win player seasons by age over the last five years.
The numbers are pretty steady from age-25 through age-30, years we would normally consider a player’s prime. After 30 years old, we see precipitous drops in each year down to 33, where Donaldson is right now. This paints a rather bleak picture for Donaldson’s outlook this season and in the future. The good news is that even with a decline from his prime, Donaldson should still be a very useful player. The Steamer projections know about Donaldson’s difficult 2018 season, and still project a very good, 4.5 WAR player. At $23 million, that production would be a bargain. And Donaldson isn’t just a good value for the Braves at that price in 2019; because the Blue Jays elected to trade the third baseman rather than extend him a qualifying offer, the Braves will have the opportunity to make that offer at the end of next season and either retain a very good player for under $20 million or receive a draft pick should he sign elsewhere.
If Donaldson does indeed meet his projections, he might be in line for the same type of deal his former teammate Edwin Encarnacion signed a few years back. In 2016, Encarnacion put up a 136 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR in his age-33 season, then landed a three-year deal worth $60 million. If Donaldson can do that, he’ll end up with four years and around $80 million, and make close to 50% more than he might have in guarantees this offseason. As there was with Encarnacion, there is some risk that a qualifying offer, and its attendant draft pick compensation, could chill Donaldson’s market next offseason. But he has made close to $56 million over the last four years in arbitration; one could argue that he has already moved into the realm of life-changing money. That might have made betting on himself to get one more big shot at free agency seem like a worthwhile risk.
For the Braves–as well as many other teams that didn’t sign Donaldson–this deal is pretty close to a no-brainer. The club came out of its rebuild in a very strong position last year and surprised many by winning the division. There should be a lot of competition in their quest to repeat, as Philadelphia is expected to spend big this winter, and the Nationals will still have a solid core even with the likely departure of Bryce Harper. The Braves were able to take advantage of the Phillies fading and the Nationals falling apart in 2018, but it might take more than 90 wins to take the division a year from now. Donaldson could greatly help that cause.
Last year, the Braves received better than expected performance at third base from Johan Camargo, who put up a 3.3 WAR season with a 115 wRC+. If Donaldson hits his projection, he’s more than a win upgrade over Camargo’s performance last season. The gap between the two players’ expected performance is even greater when you consider that Camargo is projected closer to average this season. Plus, his xwOBA was considerably lower than his wOBA last year, indicating he might have been getting a bit lucky on contact. Even if that luck evens out, a trade by the Braves isn’t inevitable as Camargo represents insurance at multiple positions should Donaldson get injured, Dansby Swanson fail to develop, or Ozzie Albies‘ second half woes carry over into 2019. Even without those issues, Camargo can serve as a utility player, providing depth at multiple positions.
Even after signing Donaldson, the Braves are still looking at under $110 million in committed payroll for next season, a figure that is lower than last season’s already low sum. The club should have plenty of money to address other issues on their roster if they don’t want to deal prospects. They can still add a proven starting pitcher, and will probably need to in order to compete with the Nationals, but the offseason probably couldn’t have started off any better for the Braves. In Josh Donaldson, the team is getting a potential star without a significant long term commitment. And if it all breaks right, Donaldson’s bet on himself could well pay off.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.