Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado were each drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft, and they each earned their first significant MLB playing time in 2012 before breaking through as top-tier stars in 2013. But the years between being drafted and being a fully immersed Major Leaguer were considerably different for the two.
Josh Donaldson was drafted by the Chicago Cubs as a catcher out of Auburn with the 48th overall pick—he was a first rounder, but less in the “can’t miss superstar, franchise player” mold and more in the “we got another pick because the Dodgers signed Juan Pierre so sure let’s draft this guy” mold. But after struggling in A-ball in 2008, the Cubs traded the 22 year-old to the Oakland Athletics in a package for Rich Harden. Repeat that last sentence to yourself as many times as you deem necessary.
In the A’s organization, Donaldson became something of a utility player, and when he earned his first MLB cup of coffee in 2010, he primarily played catcher. But in 2012, Donaldson officially became a full-time third baseman. In 2013, he finished third in American League Most Valuable Player voting. Following an only moderately less successful 2014, Donaldson was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, where he won MVP in his first season, had arguably his best offensive season in the next, and in 2017, was worth 5.0 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement despite just 496 plate appearances.
Unlike Donaldson, Manny Machado was a preordained superstar, and to his credit, Machado has lived up to the hype. Drafted and developed as a shortstop, Machado moved to third base because the Baltimore Orioles already had J.J. Hardy at his natural position. Although Machado has since played some shortstop at the Major League level, the expectation from his prospect days was always that he would eventually move to third base, and the presence of Hardy seems to have added a mythic quality to his defense. It’s more than a bit presumptuous to believe that Machado will ever again play more than in emergency duty at shortstop ever again.
This doesn’t exactly hurt Machado’s value, as he’s a great defensive third baseman. Since 2013, his breakthrough season, Manny Machado has been the best fielder at the hot corner in baseball—his 14.1 runs saved above average per 150 innings is tops among qualified third basemen. This makes sense intuitively—one would expect a shortstop, even an average one (speaking hypothetically—Machado has been above-average at shortstop, though he hasn’t played there enough to say he’s above-average with any certainty), to thrive at the less demanding defensive position of third base.
But in second place is Josh Donaldson, who like Machado made a position switch during his career but unlike Machado moved from a spot which requires an almost entirely different skill set. In football terms, moving from shortstop to third base is like moving from wide receiver to tight end. Moving from catcher to third base is like moving from kicker to tight end.
Both Donaldson and Machado will be free agents following the 2018 season, and both the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles are in a bit of a predicament—each has a good enough roster to hang around in the playoff hunt for a little while, but each is also a significant underdog to actually crack the postseason. They finished, respectively, nine and ten games behind the Minnesota Twins for the second Wild Card spot (and 17 and 18 behind the Boston Red Sox for the division title), but with the New York Yankees acquiring Giancarlo Stanton and the Los Angeles Angels signing Shohei Ohtani, their odds became even longer.
The upcoming free agent class has been anticipated for years already, and after Bryce Harper, the next-biggest name is Manny Machado. This makes sense, because while most free agents are at or slightly past their peaks, Harper and Machado will be 26 in Fall 2018. Donaldson will be 32 when free agency starts and will turn 33 on December 8, 2018. Harper and Machado will likely pursue record-setting contracts, while Donaldson will come nowhere close to a record total sum.
But in terms of this off-season, neither Donaldson nor Machado are long-term solutions because neither player is under contract beyond next season. Could a long-term extension follow? Sure, but this should not be assumed. Acquiring either player is essentially the equivalent of the Jason Heyward trade from three years ago—it would make the Cardinals materially better for 2018, but unless there is some sort of specific knowledge to suggest that a player would take a “hometown discount” for an organization he joined a year prior which isn’t actually located near his hometown, it should be treated strictly as a short-term fix.
Josh Donaldson is the better option for 2018.
While Manny Machado has been a better fielder throughout their careers, though not by leaps and bounds, Josh Donaldson has been a clearly superior hitter (and base-runner, by Base Running Runs, though this is a less significant advantage). Machado is a good hitter, and his 115 career wRC+ puts him on par with Reggie Sanders, Nolan Arenado, and Aramis Ramirez. Josh Donaldson’s 141 wRC+ puts his hitting prowess equivalent to Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez. By FanGraphs WAR, Donaldson has been better than Machado in every single season since 2012. Donaldson’s 10.9 fWAR edge from 2013 to 2017 is less than the gap between Donaldson and Mike Trout, the only position player who has been better over the last half-decade.
While long-term aging curves are what make Machado the more desirable long-term prospect of the two, single-year aging matters as well, and Donaldson, at 32, is more likely to decline from his previous season than the 25 year-old Machado. But in 2017, the two were not even close—Donaldson had a 2.2 fWAR lead, and if each’s plate appearances are prorated to per 600, Donaldson stood at 6.0 fWAR while Machado stood at 2.4 fWAR. And despite Machado’s age edge, Steamer and Depth Charts projections both give the slight edge to Donaldson in 2018 WAR.
Following the 2018 season, it would make more sense for the Cardinals, or any team, to give a long-term contract to Manny Machado, because of his age and because of his potential for growth, or at the very least lower potential for immediate regression. But for 2018, assuming that the Cardinals have mystical superpowers to convince players to sign below-market extensions is a mistake. Either player is fine, and if it turns out only one player is available, the Cardinals should have interest in that player. But costs being equal, the Cardinals should look to 2018 and 2018 only and pursue Josh Donaldson.