Ranking the Best Fits for MLB Free Agent Josh Donaldson

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 31, 2019

Ranking the Best Fits for MLB Free Agent Josh Donaldson

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    With Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and others off the board, Josh Donaldson is the lone superstar remaining on Major League Baseball's free-agent market.

    Fortunately for him, quite a few teams still need a third baseman.

    There are at least eight, so we assessed where they rank as suitors for Donaldson. This mainly involved weighing how likely they are to meet the 34-year-old's asking price, which could be as much as $100 million over four years.

    There's also the matter of how badly teams need Donaldson's bat, which produced a .900 OPS and 37 home runs in 2019, and glove, which turned in 15 defensive runs saved. Further, the man himself presumably prefers to play on a World Series contender.

    Let's get to it.

8. St. Louis Cardinals

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    Paul Goldschmidt could use Donaldson's help in St. Louis.
    Paul Goldschmidt could use Donaldson's help in St. Louis.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    If nothing else, the St. Louis Cardinals sorely need Donaldson's offensive prowess.

    They barely got enough offense in 2019, when they fell under the National League average by scoring only 4.7 runs per game. Their bats vanished altogether in the National League Championship Series. In four games, they mustered only six runs and a .374 OPS.

    But while Donaldson would fix that problem, he would also create a new one by pushing veteran slugger Matt Carpenter out of his starting gig at third base. Given his less-than-secret limitations on defense, Carpenter would be ill-suited to the task of being a roving infielder.

    An even bigger issue, meanwhile, is the Cardinals' spending capacity, or lack thereof.

    Their 2020 payroll is already projected to be near where they ended the 2019 season. And team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. has asserted (via Mark Saxon of The Athletic) that the club's payroll won't rise next season.

7. Texas Rangers

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    Donaldson would pair well with Joey Gallo in Texas.
    Donaldson would pair well with Joey Gallo in Texas.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    With Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles now alongside Mike Minor and Lance Lynn in their starting rotation, the Texas Rangers are already having a dandy of an offseason.

    Still, there's no better way for the Rangers to further dandi-fy their winter than by signing Donaldson.

    The 2015 American League MVP would take over a third base slot that was worth only 0.3 wins above replacement in 2019, according to Baseball Reference. He'd also help them avoid a repeat of the MLB-low 67 homers they got from the right side of the plate.

    It's possible, however, that Donaldson could look at the Rangers and see something less than a World Series contender. They should improve on their 78-84 record but perhaps not to a point where they dethrone the Houston Astros in the AL West.

    With their payroll already set to top what they spent in 2019, the Rangers may also lack the leeway to make Donaldson a competitive offer. That could explain why they're "not actively engaged" with him, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

6. Milwaukee Brewers

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    Imagine a Donaldson-Christian Yelich tandem in Milwaukee.
    Imagine a Donaldson-Christian Yelich tandem in Milwaukee.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Though there doesn't seem to be any mystery teams in the running for Donaldson, the Milwaukee Brewers are well suited to play that role.

    They've added plenty of players in trying to make up for the losses of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas in free agency, yet they've done so on a budget. As a result, their projected payroll for 2020 sits nearly $30 million shy of where they ended 2019.

    Furthermore, Milwaukee's de facto starter at third base appears to be Eric Sogard. He's not a bad player, but he's certainly a better fit for a utility infielder role. In other words, he alone shouldn't stand in the way of the Brewers signing Donaldson.

    But would the Brewers be World Series contenders with Donaldson? The answer is probably more "no" than "yes."

    Donaldson and fellow MVP Christian Yelich would make for a fantastic middle-of-the-order duo, yet there would still be palpable volatility elsewhere in the offense and pitching staff. The latter, especially, is short on impact talent.

5. Philadelphia Phillies

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    Donaldson would also look good alongside Bryce Harper in Philadelphia.
    Donaldson would also look good alongside Bryce Harper in Philadelphia.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    As they seek to improve on consecutive .500-ish seasons, the Philadelphia Phillies are already looking better after adding Zack Wheeler to their rotation and Didi Gregorius to their offense.

    Donaldson would more or less complete the ensemble. In addition to massively upgrading a third base spot that was worth only 0.6 WAR in 2019, he'd be a proper partner in crime for Bryce Harper in the middle of the order.

    For his part, Donaldson may also like the idea of hitting at Citizens Bank Park. Though it mainly caters to left-handed sluggers, it's a known bandbox that would play well to both his pull- and opposite-field power.

    But if Donaldson is going to stick in the NL East, he may just as soon re-join the Atlanta Braves or jump ship to the Washington Nationals. Both also need him—as we'll discuss—and both are arguably still better than the Phillies after finishing ahead of them in each of the last two seasons.

    Of course, the right offer would presumably sway Donaldson. But because the Phillies are only about $2.6 million away from the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for 2020, they may have reservations about that.

4. Minnesota Twins

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    The Twins don't need another home run hitter, but they have space for Donaldson.
    The Twins don't need another home run hitter, but they have space for Donaldson.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Twins don't need Donaldson, but they apparently want him anyway.

    According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, it's "believed" the Twins are one of the teams willing to do a four-year with Donaldson. This is despite the fact they already have Miguel Sano at third base and plenty of power in their lineup.

    Then again, the Twins could move Sano across the diamond to first base, which would free Marwin Gonzalez to play his customary jack-of-all-trades role.

    And even though they hit a record 307 home runs in 2019, the Twins aren't necessarily wrong to think that overkill is underrated when it comes to their offense. Slotting Donaldson in with Sano, Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and other holdovers would give them a shot at, say, 350 home runs.

    With their 2020 payroll set at just $109.1 million, the Twins should also have the money for Donaldson. And after winning 101 games in 2019, they have a clear path to more AL Central titles in 2020 and beyond.

    Throw in the potential for Donaldson to get occasional light duty at designated hitter, and the Twins have plenty to offer.

3. Atlanta Braves

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    Donaldson can always go home again.
    Donaldson can always go home again.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When Donaldson signed a one-year, $23 million contract with the Braves last November, it was a homecoming of sorts for the Auburn product and a chance to move past consecutive injury-marred seasons.

    Obviously, that worked out. And if he wants to go back home again, there's still a spot for him at third base.

    While the Braves could move ahead with Austin Riley at the hot corner, they should be in no hurry to do so after the young slugger was humbled in the majors in 2019. To boot, their lineup looks noticeably weaker in the middle without Donaldson backing up Freddie Freeman.

    Donaldson himself reportedly prefers to return to the Braves, who've won back-to-back NL East titles. According to David O'Brien of The Athletic, "There is a belief that the Braves asked for and were given assurance that they would be able to make a final offer before Donaldson signs with any other team."

    The Braves' 2020 payroll, which is already projected over what they spent in 2019, would seem to be a hurdle. But with the luxury tax nowhere in sight and a World Series title potentially within their grasp, it's perhaps not too big of a hurdle to overcome.

2. Washington Nationals

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    Now that Anthony Rendon is gone, Juan Soto needs a new slugging partner.
    Now that Anthony Rendon is gone, Juan Soto needs a new slugging partner.Elsa/Getty Images

    Here's still another incentive for the Braves to pursue a reunion with Donaldson: The harder they chase him, the more likely they are to deny the enemy.

    It doesn't sound like the Nationals are ready to go quietly from the Donaldson sweepstakes, however. Reports by Jon Heyman of MLB Network and Bob Nightengale of USA Today indicate Donaldson is Washington's top target in free agency. Per Rosenthal, they're also the other team that's willing to do a four-year deal.

    Not so coincidentally, the Nationals have a massive hole where Anthony Rendon once stood. Were they to fill it with Donaldson, they'd only slightly downgrade, from a 6.3-WAR star to a 6.1-WAR star.

    And whereas the Braves have apparent limits on their finances, the Nationals should have none. Their 2020 payroll is about $45 million south of where they left off in 2019, not to mention more than $31 million short of the luxury tax.

    As for whether the Nationals are World Series contenders, well, they just won one. That should answer that question.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Donaldson and Cody Bellinger would be a lethal duo.
    Donaldson and Cody Bellinger would be a lethal duo.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    If the Los Angeles Dodgers deem it necessary, they can absolutely win the bidding for Donaldson.

    Though signing Donaldson would likely put them over the $208 million luxury-tax threshold, the penalty wouldn't be too severe. They did, after all, reset their tax penalties when they went under in 2018. Plus, they'd still be short of the second- and third-tier penalties that kick in with $20 and $40 million in overages.

    Granted, the Dodgers arguably don't need Donaldson at third base as long as they have Justin Turner. But Turner has previously expressed a willingness to move to first base, which is probably where the 35-year-old belongs at this point anyway.

    Beyond simply getting an upgrade at third base, the Dodgers would also get a much-needed righty slugger if they signed Donaldson. As we've previously discussed, their left-handed hitters far outperformed their right-handed hitters in 2019.

    With or without Donaldson, the Dodgers already have a straight path to their eighth straight NL West title in 2020. Only with Donaldson, however, can they cement themselves as the team to beat in the entire National League.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.