My stance on the St. Louis Cardinals, as those who read my post earlier today could probably tell, is that they should not be buyers at this trade deadline. Their chances of making the postseason are slim–not only are they several games behind a playoff spot, but there are several other teams chasing the playoff spot holders that are closer than the Cardinals. The problem isn’t that I don’t think the Cardinals could catch the Arizona Diamondbacks (though I’m not predicting it)–it’s that they would have to catch a team like Arizona while also holding off Colorado, or Atlanta, or Pittsburgh, while also withstanding whatever chances there are of a charge from Washington or San Francisco.
It still makes sense for the Cardinals to pursue a player with several years of club cost control remaining, albeit two months less sense than for a team that is trying to win now. If one works under the assumption that the Cardinals probably aren’t going to make the postseason in 2018, acquiring a pure rental probably doesn’t make much sense. It’s why the Cardinals weren’t in on the Manny Machado sweepstakes and why they probably aren’t inquiring with any real degree of seriousness about Bryce Harper.
But in the case of Josh Donaldson, the Toronto Blue Jays third baseman who will be a free agent following the 2018 season, it might make sense for the Cardinals to ask what it would take to bring him to St. Louis. It might not be worth the cost, but it’s worth taking a few minutes out of a front office higher-up’s day to ask.
Unlike Manny Machado, who has been his typical great self in 2018, and Bryce Harper, who despite a low batting average has been a generally worthwhile if slightly disappointing player in his final season before reaching free agency, Josh Donaldson’s 2018 has been a mess. Donaldson has not played at all since May 28, and when he did play, he was not his normal self. While Donaldson had previously been a very good defensive third baseman, his performance in the field took a dip this year, both statistically and anecdotally. Additionally, while his offense wasn’t catastrophically bad, a 104 wRC+ was certainly a disappointment. Donaldson struck out more and he hit for less power.
At a price tag of $23 million, the arbitration-eligible Donaldson has been a disappointment this season, but the fact that a player who has yet to reach free agency yet was able to sign a $23 million contract reflects what a tremendous player Josh Donaldson has been in his career. Since 2013, the season in which Donaldson became a fixture in the lineup of the Oakland Athletics, despite an obviously lackluster and abbreviated 2018, only Mike Trout has been more valuable among MLB position players than Josh Donaldson. From a pure production standpoint, Josh Donaldson has had few peers.
The case for acquiring Josh Donaldson before the season was a more obvious one–super productive players are good to have for making a postseason run. On paper, acquiring Donaldson makes less sense now by just about every angle–there is a very real possibility that Donaldson, who will turn 33 in December, has entered the decline stage of his career. There is a very real possibility that even if he isn’t aging to any extreme degree, his injury has made him a worse player going forward. And even if Donaldson comes back from his injury tomorrow and is vintage Josh Donaldson, it probably isn’t going to make the difference between a playoff appearance and sitting at home come October.
But unlike in the off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays are, or at least should be, extremely motivated sellers. Prior to 2018, the Blue Jays saw themselves as Wild Card contenders, and unlike their division rival Baltimore Orioles, who also had a hot third base commodity at their disposal, this seemed at least within the realm of possibility. It made sense for the Blue Jays to consider offers, sure, but Donaldson also had short-term value in ways that Manny Machado, by virtue of the players around him, couldn’t. But it turns out that being in the same division as the co-juggernaut Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees makes a postseason run exceedingly difficult, and they sit a dozen-plus games out of even the second Wild Card position. The Blue Jays have already traded JA Happ, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Roberto Osuna (and they may have made another trade between now and when this post goes up). They are firmly sellers.
And yet the market for Josh Donaldson appears to be shockingly low for a player of his pedigree. Because of his contract–teams aren’t generally dying to pay nearly $8 million for a currently injured player–he might even clear waivers. Before the season, it would’ve taken at least a top prospect or two to acquire Josh Donaldson. And now the price to beat is “something better than the qualifying offer pick”. Assuming Josh Donaldson isn’t completely damaged.
Let’s put the price tag for Josh Donaldson, admittedly totally out of thin air, as Austin Gomber. Gomber is a nice player to have for the Cardinals, but he’s a more valuable player for the Blue Jays. While Austin Gomber is probably going to either be stashed on the Memphis Redbirds in case of injury to a starter, or perhaps relegated to a middle relief role, he would have a better chance of cracking the thinner rotation of the Blue Jays. And he’s under team control through at least 2023. While Gomber may not have a ton of upside, his expected MLB production, given how he’s already in the big leagues, is probably higher than the expected production of a player at Donaldson’s compensation pick level (keeping in mind that the Blue Jays will not receive a first-round pick, as had been the case).
From a Cardinals perspective, they would gain something very valuable and unique in acquiring Josh Donaldson, and it has nothing to do with his 2018 production–they would have two-plus months of careful examination of Donaldson’s health and current ability on a daily basis. They would have two-plus months of an exclusive negotiating window with Donaldson–while an extension being signed this close to free agency would be rare in the modern era, so is a player having such a dramatic performance drop-off. While I generally don’t put much of a premium on the notion of “trade for a player and impress him into signing a below-market extension”, I can’t imagine it hurts to give Donaldson some level of assurance that he isn’t entering a toxic environment.
As was the case with Jason Heyward, evaluating the trade on whether or not Josh Donaldson would re-sign in St. Louis would be foolish because, well, maybe not re-signing the player would be a good thing. But acquiring him would present a huge information advantage over any teams potentially seeking Donaldson (unlike Bryce Harper, who has a nonzero chance of re-signing with the Washington Nationals, it is unlikely that the Blue Jays would re-sign a player at the position played by their blue chip prospect). If the Cardinals acquire Donaldson and realize that he is a dud at this point, he will assuredly be signed for a not-insigificant amount of money by somebody, and it might be worth the cost of a decent-not-great prospect just to avoid that kind of financial constraint.