Since 2012, when third baseman Josh Donaldson exhausted his rookie eligibility with the Oakland Athletics, Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball. Trout won a pair of MVP awards, deserved at least two (probably three) more, and has invited comparisons to Mickey Mantle which, if anything, underestimate Trout. With 64 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs since the beginning of 2012, Trout is easily baseball’s best player in that time according to an objective measure which measures a player’s hitting, fielding, and base running.
#2 on the list of the top position players since 2012 is Josh Donaldson.
And this isn’t even some fluke of longevity in which an arbitrary endpoint makes Donaldson look more productive than he was–the next ten position players on the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard accumulated more plate appearances, before the less tenured Mookie Betts arrives. Those ten players are, in order: Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, and Bryce Harper.
Bryce Harper is the most celebrated free agent in the 2018-19 crop, along with Manny Machado (three spots lower than Harper, at #15). Two other players on the list are also free agents, though Adrian Beltre’s age and Andrew McCutchen’s decline make their second-class status on the market fairly understandable (though McCutchen, despite moving from center field to a corner spot, is only 32 and should still command a multi-year, eight-figures per season contract).
Josh Donaldson isn’t young–he will be 33 throughout the 2019 season–but tales of his decline have been greatly exaggerated. 2017 may have marked a noticeable decrease in Donaldson’s production, but he was still a five-win player in less than 500 plate appearances, with a tremendous bat (.270/.385/.559, good for a 151 wRC+) and, as had been the case in every season of his career, above-average defense at third base.
In 2018, he battled injuries, and while his 117 wRC+ was a step back by his standards, he was a more productive hitter on a rate basis than multiple Silver Slugger winners at premium offensive positions–Atlanta Braves right fielder Nick Markakis and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. The arc of his season, although reading too much into it is probably falling into the small sample size trap, suggests that this was more the result of Donaldson being hurt than Donaldson falling off an age-related cliff. After he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in late August (the top prospect in baseball is a Toronto Blue Jays minor league third baseman, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., which likely gave the team pause to risk Donaldson accepting a qualifying offer), Donaldson had a 149 wRC+. Prorated to a full season, this would’ve made Donaldson tied for the fifth best hitter in baseball.
Projection systems understand that Josh Donaldson probably isn’t the same player he was at his peak, and they understand that Josh Donaldson will probably incur some incremental decline over the next several seasons, but they still think Donaldson will be a valuable player in 2019. Steamer projects Donaldson to be the 17th best player in baseball. The gap between Donaldson and the highest projected Cardinals player, Marcell Ozuna, dwarfs the gap between Donaldson and the more acclaimed free agents available this offseason (Machado projects for 5.1 WAR, Harper for 4.9, Donaldson for 4.6; Ozuna projects for 3.5).
And yet, Josh Donaldson is perceived as a second-class citizen in this year’s free agent class. He has turned into a consolation prize. He has turned into a player that, if the St. Louis Cardinals sign him (they are widely considered to be one of the front-runners for his services), there would be quite a bit of consternation among the fan base that the Cardinals front office had failed. And I don’t understand why that is.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are perceived as better players. They are both projected to be (slightly) better in 2019, and each is only 26 years old. I would certainly rather give a long-term deal to either of these players than to Donaldson, and if for some reason either player was looking at a shorter deal, along the lines of what Donaldson is seeking (or at least what realism has told him to accept), I’d rather have one of the younger guys.
But the point is that Josh Donaldson would be a really, really exciting acquisition for the Cardinals. He is a player with MVP upside and, if he can stay healthy, a floor which is still quite a bit higher than the most likely outcomes for internal options at the hot corner. I don’t think he’s quite as natural of a fit as Bryce Harper, but he would arguably make more sense than Manny Machado, who seems intent on playing shortstop, the position currently held by the Cardinals’ projected second-best position player in Paul DeJong. The Cardinals could add Josh Donaldson and immediately have an embarrassment of riches in the infield. Working with a base of Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, and Donaldson, Jedd Gyorko could platoon with Wong and act as insurance for Donaldson, while Yairo Munoz is probably better suited to back up DeJong. Oh, and Jose Martinez is still around.
But what Josh Donaldson doesn’t, and what Bryce Harper does, represent is stardom. Harper has been a big deal since he was in high school–it was national news when he earned his GED so that he could enroll in community college and be eligible for the MLB Draft at 17. He was, conservatively, one of the five most hyped amateur baseball players ever. His willingness for heel-turns that his more milquetoast 2012 fellow rookie Mike Trout refuses has made Harper the focal point of national advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, Donaldson is far less visible. He wasn’t a major prospect and he spent his MLB career playing in Oakland, a team that receives little national attention, and Toronto, which American media largely ignores. Josh Donaldson is a great player but he isn’t a star.
The hype surrounding Harper and Machado has built upon itself. Signing one of them isn’t only a matter of signing a great baseball player–it’s a matter of validation. It shows that the Cardinals were wanted. It demonstrates that Cardinals fans haven’t been wasting their lives by following a baseball team whose players don’t want to play in St. Louis.
This was the tone in 2015, when Jason Heyward opted to sign with the Chicago Cubs. Particularly when the literally true but extremely misleading “Jason Heyward took less money to go to Chicago” line became gospel (Heyward also took more player-friendly opt-out clauses), St. Louis opted for self-loathing and a sense of doom. In 2017, when Giancarlo Stanton nixed a trade to the Cardinals so that he could instead go to an inner-circle World Series contender (in this case, the New York Yankees), it once again became a source of needless self-reflection. Things just happen sometimes. You can read whatever metaphors you want, but that doesn’t mean there’s any causality there.
If history is any indication, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign with the team which offers the most financially advantageous contract, give or take a few million dollars. The same, of course, applies to Josh Donaldson, and every other free agent on the market, with a possible exception for the CC Sabathias of the world (Sabathia has already re-signed a probably slightly below market value contract with the New York Yankees, an action made easier by the fact that he’s a very wealthy man and could easily afford retirement if he weren’t wanted by the team with whom he has spent the last decade).
The Cardinals shouldn’t act emotionally–they should enter free agency knowing how much they want to spend and spend to that level on the players whom they believe will give the Cardinals the best chance at winning a whole bunch of baseball games. And while Josh Donaldson may not have the most name cachet, he may be, in conjunction with players who could be afforded by not signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado), give the Cardinals the best chance to accomplish their goals.