Yesterday, I suggested the Blue Jays and Cardinals should consider making a swap centered around Josh Donaldson. Unsurprisingly, many of the comments felt the return for a true superstar was less than it should be. Historically, the public expectation of what elite players will return in trade is less than they actually bring back when traded. But beyond just a difference in expected market value for one year of an elite player, I think that the Jays might want to consider that, if things go south this year, they’ll be tasked with trading a third baseman in a buyer’s market.
Let’s start by just looking at the teams that we can reasonably expect to be buyers this summer. There are 10 teams that currently project for 84+ wins in 2018; here are their third base situations.
Astros: Alex Bregman
Indians: Yandy Diaz?
Dodgers: Justin Turner
Nationals: Anthony Rendon
Cubs: Kris Bryant
Red Sox: Rafael Devers
Yankees: Chase Headley/Gleyber Torres
Cardinals: Jedd Gyorko
Diamondbacks: Jake Lamb
Angels: Luis Valbuena
Of those 10, unless there’s a season-ending injury, you can effectively cross off Houston, LA, Washington, Chicago, Boston, and Arizona.
Cleveland could use an upgrade at third base, but isn’t in the habit of paying premium prices for rentals, and Donaldson’s salary might be an obstacle for them. The Yankees could be a buyer, but if Torres returns at 100%, he could easily displace Headley and take the Yankees out of the market for a third baseman. The Cardinals could be the most obvious buyer, but if they don’t get Donaldson this winter, they probably go after some other big slugger, and might not be in the market for Donaldson if they pay a high price for a guy like Giancarlo Stanton. The Angels also could definitely be buyers, but their line-up is very right-handed already, and they might prefer a left-handed slugger instead.
So there are four maybe buyers of third baseman in that mix, but none of them look like perfect fits for a mid-season Donaldson trade for various reasons. And if you go down to the next tier of teams, ones who could be buyers or sellers, the pickings get even slimmer.
The Pirates could use an upgrade on David Freese, but it’s not easy to see them paying a significant price for rent-a-Donaldson in July. The Mets could push Asdrubal Cabrera back to second base or shortstop if their pitching stays healthy and they want to add an impact bat, but they seem like a long-shot to keep up with the Nationals in the NL East, and they probably wouldn’t pay a premium to improve for just a few at-bats in a Wild Card game. The Giants could definitely use a third baseman, but they’re focused on trading for Stanton at the moment, and their farm system isn’t anything to write home about anyway.
The reality is that, outside of the Angels and Giants, there aren’t too many teams that are definitely going to be trying to win in 2018 and have clear needs at third base. And those are two of the worst farm systems in baseball. Oh, and there happen to be two pretty decent free agent third baseman out there in Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier, both of whom will sign a multi-year deal, likely with one of the aforementioned teams, that will remove them from consideration for a July third base acquisition.
And the buyers market for third baseman is only likely to get worse. Reports suggest that the Rays are going to shop Evan Longoria this winter, putting another above-average third baseman in play for teams looking to upgrade. Given Moustakas and Frazier’s expected contracts, I don’t think the Rays will find a buyer before the season starts, but they’ll probably keep looking to move him in-season if they don’t find a new home for him before Spring Training.
The Orioles unlikely chance to contend will likely crystalize in mid-summer, forcing them to confront the possibility of putting Manny Machado on the market. And if the Rangers fall out of the race again, Adrian Beltre could be made available as a rental.
It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that all four of these teams could be shopping their third baseman this summer. And having Donaldson, Machado, Beltre, and Longoria on the market at the same time would be a disaster for each of those clubs, especially given how well positioned most contenders are at third base.
Of course, injuries will change things. Someone who isn’t thinking they’ll be looking for a third base upgrade this summer will find themselves in need of an upgrade at the hot corner. The future is unpredictable. But if I was thinking about trading a third baseman at some point in the next 12 months, I’d probably be interested in doing it sooner than later. Once Moustakas and Frazier sign, two potential landing spots will likely be off the board, and there aren’t that many to begin with.
And then potential 3B-sellers might have to race each other to market in order to avoid an oversupply problem. We saw what happened with J.D. Martinez this summer when no one really needed a right-handed corner outfielder. It’s easy to think that there will always be interest in acquiring a great player like Donaldson, and to some extent that is true, but if the Blue Jays are looking for a significant return if they fall out of the race, they might find themselves disappointed on many fronts once August rolls around.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.