Josh Donaldson is among a group of free agents who bet on themselves last winter. He certainly could have gotten a multi-year deal from some team, but likely at a lower salary than the $23 million he received last season. Going two or three years also would have meant hitting the free agent market again heading into his age-35 or age-36 season, when another multi-year deal would have been far less likely. Donaldson opted to get a jump on free agency last winter, take the best one-year deal he could get, and let his play do the talking heading into free agency again. While Donaldson’s risk hasn’t paid off yet, he is coming off a five-win season that ranked 20th among position players, just behind Yasmani Grandal and just ahead of Peter Alonso and Juan Soto. Despite turning 34 years old next month, Donaldson should receive a multi-year deal paying him just as much as he earned a year ago.
We’ve already seen Grandal bet on himself and have the move pay off in free agency this season. The same is likely to be true for Hyun-Jin Ryu as well. It might also finally pay off for Mike Moustakas. Turning down greater guarantees in the hopes for a better market when the player is a year older is a risky play. It was particularly risky for Donaldson given how injuries prevented him from playing most of the 2018 season, and when he did play, his hitting was well below his previously high standards. Another year like 2018 and Donaldson would’ve been looking at very small guarantees heading into next season. As it stands, Kiley McDaniel predicted Donaldson would receive $71 million over three years while the crowd came in at $60 million. He only needs half of McDaniel’s prediction to beat the expected contract from a year ago. A good 2019 should pay off for Donaldson, but let’s look at how his future performance could pay off for a team.
Looking at the projections for next season, Donaldson is forecast for 4.5 WAR across 644 plate appearances. If he comes anywhere near that mark, he’ll be a great deal for some team and likely still be very good in the years that follow. If we assumed half a win in decline over the following two seasons, 12 WAR would put Donaldson among the top-30 players in the league during that time. There is some downside to that projection, however. Last season was the first year Donaldson had more than 500 plate appearances since 2016, so 600-plus is hardly a guarantee. To look at some of the risk, as well as the reward, that comes with Donaldson, we can look at how similarly performing players have done in the past.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at careers for players in their 30s. Over the past four seasons, Donaldson has been worth 18.9 WAR. I looked at all players within four wins who played in the infield during their careers in their age-30 through age-33 seasons. Then, I found players within 20 points of Donaldson’s 143 wRC+ and within 20 runs of Donaldson’s 8.8 runs above average on defense. Then, I eliminated any players who weren’t within a win and a half of Donaldson’s 4.9 WAR season at age-33 and received at least 500 plate appearances in that season. Going back 50 years, I found nine similar players.
This is a good list of players just like Donaldson is a good player. We have a mix of good-fielding first basemen and decent-fielding good-hitting second basemen and shortstops. The group does have about half a season of plate appearances on Donaldson, but the current free agent balances that with slightly better hitting. Donaldson is also coming off a better-than-average age-33 campaign compared to his comps seen below.
More relevant to the future, here’s how these players performed at age 34.
The bad news is that only Jeff Kent hit Donaldson’s 2020 projection, but the good news is that seven of the nine players were solidly above average, with Keith Hernandez heading that way before being slowed by hamstring problems and Melvin Mora’s defensive numbers taking a huge hit. The odds of Donaldson being good are… well, good. If you think that Donaldson will hit that offensive average, play a full season, and be average at third on defense, there’s that 4.5 WAR he’s projected for. What about at age 35?
Hernandez’s injuries stuck with him, but everybody else was average or better, and six of nine were at least good. The group still hit well and posted slightly better defensive numbers. Now, here’s 36 years old.
I include the median to provide some perspective given just how awful Hernandez performed. The group was still above average on offense, and still playing a mostly full season, and five of nine players were still good. Without putting up another table, I’ll note that if we went out another year to age 37, we’d remove Robinson Cano because he hasn’t played his age-37 season, as well Hernandez, who didn’t play. Of the seven remaining players, four put up seasons over 3.5 WAR, Mark Grace added a 2.6-WAR year, and Bobby Grich kept up with a 2.1-WAR season. Only Mora played poorly. Even when giving Cano and Hernandez a zero, the average of the group of nine at age 37 was 2.4 WAR.
If we want to paint a broad brush, we’d say Josh Donaldson is an infielder with a good bat, decent defense, star-level play in his past, and is coming off a very good season. As we can see above, similar players have fared fairly well into their mid-30s. The group above averaged a 117 wRC+ and roughly three wins per season from 34 years old through 36 years old, which is the period of a three-year deal for Donaldson. I ran a similar test removing Donaldson’s 7.6-WAR season at age 30 and still got roughly the same results. When we are dealing with the long-term future and deals of five years or more, age can be very important. When we are talking about the short term and just the next few years, present production trumps age. Josh Donaldson was really good in 2019 and that means he’s very likely to be really good in 2020 and pretty good for a couple years thereafter. Josh Donaldson bet on himself and now he just needs a team to make the good bet on him.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.