Josh Donaldson Can Become Free-Agent Steal for $300M Less Than Machado, Harper

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2018

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 26:  Josh Donaldson #27 of the Cleveland Indians plays third base in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 26, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Josh Donaldson was the toast of MLB.

In every season from 2013 to 2016, the third baseman finished in the top 10 in American League MVP voting. He won the award in 2015, when he hit 41 home runs, paced the AL with 123 RBI and led baseball with 122 runs scored. 

During that 2013-16 span, Donaldson posted 29.2 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, second only to Mike Trout (37.3 WAR).

He was, by any metric, a superstar among superstars. 

Now, Donaldson is approaching free agency as damaged goods. But a late-season trade gave him the opportunity to redeem himself and hit the market as a buy-low steal.

A nagging calf injury limited Donaldson to 36 games with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018. While on the field, he hit .234 with a .757 OPS. 

At the August 31 waiver trade deadline, the Jays dealt Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later. 

David Dermer/Associated Press

It was a steep fall from grace for a man who'd have garnered blue-chip prospects a year or two earlier. And it was a painful concession for Toronto, which waited too long to trade its franchise player. 

Then again, it was also a second chance. The Jays were going nowhere in an American League East dominated by the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

The Indians, on the other hand, were waltzing to a third straight AL Central title. 

The Tribe wanted offensive help. Donaldson, presumably, wanted another crack at an October run and a chance to put his injury woes and underperformance in the rearview mirror.

Roller skate, meet key.

In 16 regular-season games with Cleveland, Donaldson hit .280 with a .920 OPS.

"I'm glad he's on our side now," Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin said, per Jordan Bastian of MLB.com. "Watching that swing as opposed to actually having to face that swing."

The swap was subject to scrutiny by the Red Sox and Yankees, according to a report by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. At the time of the deal, Donaldson hadn't played in the majors since May 28. Per MLB rules, a player has to be healthy to be put on revocable trade waivers.

Small-sample caveats aside, Donaldson's performance with the Indians proved he was healthy and laid those objections to rest. Also, it primed him for an October outburst that could swell his bank account.

Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will headline the 2018-19 free-agent class. Neither player was stellar in his contract year, but the 25-year-old Harper and 26-year-old Machado ought to command contracts north of $300 million and possibly in the vicinity of $400 million. 

For the clubs that strike out on that dynamic duo, Donaldson is an intriguing, roll-of-the-dice consolation prize.

Is there risk? Sure. A player who's entering his age-33 season with nagging injury issues doesn't scream "wise investment."

Donaldson isn't merely some player, however. He's a rare talent who isn't far removed from elite production. On a shorter-term pact worth hundreds of millions less than what Harper and Machado will reel in, he could be an unmitigated bargain. 

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 28: Josh Donaldson #27 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates his grand slam as he rounds third and heads home in the seventh inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on September 28, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It'll depend on how Donaldson performs in the playoffs. After cruising to victory in the weak AL Central with a 91-71 record, the Indians will kick off their October slate against the defending MLB champion Houston Astros on Friday. 

For what it's worth, Donaldson owns a .333 average against Astros righty Justin Verlander in 18 at-bats, a .292 average against southpaw Dallas Keuchel in 24 at-bats and is hitless against righty Gerrit Cole in three at-bats. 

In 133 postseason plate appearances, he's slashed .292/.361/.475.

If he rakes and the Indians advance, his stock will soar. If he stumbles and Cleveland makes an early exit, he could be in line for a one-year show-me contract.

It's Donaldson's move, in other words. Recent results indicate he's prepared to take advantage.

Harper and Machado will gobble up the headlines. But a former MVP is poised to reclaim his seat at the superstar table.

General managers, prepare your checkbooks. 


All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs