Yesterday, the first significant free agent signed with the Atlanta Braves. To me, it was a very shocking signing. First, the Braves were not on my radar to sign Donaldson, although I didn’t really look at the candidates to sign him too closely. Secondly, that the signing happened NOW. Calling him the first significant free agent signing is an understatement. He signed before just about any name you’ve heard that someone would want to sign. Lastly, that he signed for one year. All of these things were surprising to me.
My initial reaction was not to question why the Cardinals didn’t sign him, but why Donaldson would sign for one year. I know what you’re probably thinking. He had an injury-plagued year. He played in 52 total games. Logically, a good, healthy year in 2019 would raise his value. But... I don’t really think it will?
If Donaldson had a healthy year in 2018, he absolutely would have gotten more money and years. I’m not disputing that. But I don’t think he would have done badly if he waited for more money and years out in this timeline. He got a 1 year, $23 million contract for a reason after all. I think he could have gotten 3-4 years with close to $20 million AAV. This is where risk/reward comes into play and I just think the risk is way higher than the reward by signing a one-year deal.
He’s 33-years-old next year and will be 34 when he hits free agency again. If Donaldson has his absolute best case scenario season, it will be a good decision, but not by that much. He’s still going to be 34 with an injury history. If he has a mediocre season or has another injury-plagued season, he will absolutely pay the price. Now he’s coming off two mediocre seasons and will be 34. If he’s merely good and not great, I still think it probably hurts him. If this was 2008, I think he’d stand a better chance of still scoring big with a contract - he also would have signed a big deal THIS free agency because teams didn’t let a little thing like age bother them in free agents.
Nonetheless, Donaldson is projected for 4.2 WAR by Steamer. I would balk a little at that projection because it assumes he will play in 130 games and get 570 plate appearances, which hasn’t happened in two years. Players usually don’t get healthier when they get older. Based off memory, Steamer usually has more PAs for injury-plagued players than ZiPS so I expect a lower projection from ZiPS. My best guess is 515 PAs, about 20 more than he had in 2017 and much, much more than last year.
With 515 PAs, his projection is still 3.8 WAR. That comes out to a valuation of $34.2 million. That is his projection, not his upside. Requiring no upside but just for him to stay healthy, he is near 5 WAR. His actual upside is 7+ WAR. So Donaldson is really easily worth what he will get paid in 2019.
Why didn’t the Cardinals do this? Well two reasons I think. The first is that the Braves appear to be who Donaldson rooted for when he was growing up. I think the Cardinals could woo him away with a one-year deal, but it would probably have to be more than a few million. If you’re willing to sign for one year to play for your hometown team and risk not getting paid near as much in future earnings, I doubt the Cards offering him $25 million would have changed his mind.
Secondly, and more importantly, I’m guessing that the AAV on Donaldson’s deal that he would need to get from the Cards would probably make it extremely unlikely they could get Bryce Harper (or Manny Machado). I know the Cards can add a lot in salary, but this is where reality meets hope. The Cardinals are very much not adding $60+ million in salary for 2019 no matter how much we wish it to be.
Signing Donaldson would, in my eyes, very likely mean no Harper. I know a lot of you feel that is already going to be the case, but there’s a reason everyone listed Donaldson as the Plan B. Most people thought Donaldson and Harper was a pipe dream, and for good reason. I wanted Josh Donaldson and it’s unfortunate he signed so early, but let’s hope he truly is the Plan B and get Plan A.