Josh Donaldson's Nightmare 2018 Is Costing Him $100M in Free-Agent Cash

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 25, 2018

TORONTO, ON - MAY 20: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays warms up shortly before the start of their MLB game against the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre on May 20, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Josh Donaldson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Josh Donaldson was the American League MVP as recently as 2015, and it was just last year that he racked up a .944 OPS and 33 home runs in a "down" season.

And yet, he's on his way to flopping in free agency this year.

Among the many reasons the Toronto Blue Jays are a meager 36-41 is that Donaldson has basically been a non-factor in the first half of the season. The 32-year-old third baseman has played in only 36 games and struggled on both offense and defense when healthy.

He's been worth just 0.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. That's quite a fall from grace for a guy who ranked here in WAR between 2013 and 2017:

  • 1. Mike Trout: 43.1 WAR
  • 2. Josh Donaldson: 36.1 WAR

As far as Donaldson is concerned, the rest of 2018 is about re-establishing himself as a star. Not just so he can help the Blue Jays—or, in all probability, some other team—get to the postseason but also so he can show he's still elite just in time for his first foray onto the open market.

We might not be having this conversation if things had gone differently during the spring.

Donaldson and the Blue Jays were having serious talks about a contract extension that would keep him in Toronto beyond 2018. But Donaldson ultimately walked away in February, saying (per Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet) that the two sides were "not at the same type of area, the same ballpark."

In that moment, he effectively chose to bet on himself to have a walk year worthy of his track record. It was a bit of a risk for a guy his age, but the potential reward was a free-agent contract that would surely be worth over $100 million.

Squint hard enough, and you can already see that ship sailing away.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 19: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays during his at bat in the seventh inning during MLB game action against the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre on May 19, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

If nothing else, Donaldson's age has become an even bigger red flag than it was before. 

After he had averaged 157 games per year between 2013 and 2016, the injury bug finally came for Donaldson in 2017. He was limited to 113 games by a right calf strain that sidelined him for most of April and May.

This season had barely gotten underway before the injury bug bit Donaldson again. One of the bigger stories that emerged in Toronto's 6-1 loss to the New York Yankees on Opening Day was that Donaldson was suddenly barely capable of throwing the ball across the diamond. Like so:

Donaldson and the Blue Jays chalked this up to a "dead arm" that could be fixed by a few days of designated hitter duty. Instead, he ended up on the disabled list on April 13 and missed about three weeks.

After he returned on May 3, it wasn't long before Donaldson was back on the DL on June 1. This time, it was for tightness in his left calf that rendered him incapable of running at full speed.

Age and mileage seem to have already crushed Donaldson's value as a defender. His 43 defensive runs saved between 2013 and 2015 ranked third among third basemen behind only Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. He's managed just five DRS since then, including zero this year.

None of this is likely to keep trade suitors from approaching the Blue Jays about renting Donaldson for the rest of the year.

But for any team that's eyeing him as a possible free-agent signing, the veteran's recent injury trouble can't be overlooked. Suffice it to say, there's quite a bit of risk in extending a hefty multiyear offer to a guy whose health and glove have abandoned him at the doorstep of his mid-30s.

Meanwhile, there's the question of what will become of Donaldson's bat.

He's managed just a .757 OPS this year. That's slightly above average by normal standards but nearly 200 points worse than the .946 OPS he averaged in his first three seasons in Toronto between 2015 and 2017.

Donaldson isn't completely broken as a hitter. His 13.2 walk percentage is proof that his plate discipline is still excellent. To boot, a solid 37 percent of the balls he's put in play have qualified as hard-hit.

Simply putting balls in play, however, has been a problem. Whereas Donaldson used to be better than the average MLB hitter at avoiding strikeouts, now he's considerably worse with a strikeout rate of 28 percent.

There's nothing misleading about that. His contact rates both inside and outside the strike zone are down:

And while much of the contact Donaldson is making may technically qualify as hard, it's not the kind of contact he's known for. 

"No grounders," Donaldson said last year, according to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. "Ground balls are outs. If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it's a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident."

But despite his intentions, Donaldson's ground-ball rate has shot up above the Major League Baseball average at 48 percent. That's reflective of his 9.7-degree average launch angle, the lowest he's recorded since Statcast started in 2015.

Then there's the not-so-encouraging regression of his average exit velocity:

  • 2015: 92.2 mph
  • 2016: 92.0 mph
  • 2017: 90.6 mph
  • 2018: 89.7 mph

It may not be too late for Donaldson to salvage his 2018 season. It may seem like it, but his 2017 season also looked like a massive disappointment before he ripped off a .992 OPS and 24 homers in the second half.

But no matter how Donaldson finishes this season, he can't erase the red flags looming over his future. He once was a durable and unquestionably elite third baseman. Now, he's an injury-prone third baseman whose trademark abilities are fading.

A multiyear free-agent contract worth nine figures is probably already out of the question. Instead, Donaldson may have to try to copycat Adrian Beltre (circa 2009) and use a one-year "pillow contract" as a springboard to riches in his mid-to-late 30s.

For now, really all Donaldson can do is try to pick up as many pieces as he can.