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The 3 teams that really need Josh Donaldson

@mike_petriello
December 17, 2019

Dating back to 2013, when Josh Donaldson had his breakout season as a 27-year-old third baseman for the Oakland A's, he's been one of baseball's few true superstars. Even as he's gone from Oakland to Toronto to Cleveland to Atlanta, Donaldson has mashed, to the point that his 40.6 Wins

Dating back to 2013, when Josh Donaldson had his breakout season as a 27-year-old third baseman for the Oakland A's, he's been one of baseball's few true superstars. Even as he's gone from Oakland to Toronto to Cleveland to Atlanta, Donaldson has mashed, to the point that his 40.6 Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) in that span is second in all of baseball only to the legendary Mike Trout.

Donaldson has hit 209 homers in that span, 10th-most in baseball, and he's slugged .520, tied for 15th-best among qualifiers. He's done it all while playing solid defense at third, to the point that he's received Most Valuable Player votes in six of the past seven seasons, beating out Trout for the AL MVP in 2015. The only blemish on his resume, aside from the fact that he just turned 34, was an injury-plagued 2018 that limited him to only 52 games. Still, he bet on himself to rebound in 2019 by signing a one-year deal with Atlanta, and both sides won -- Donaldson played in 155 games, smashing 37 homers.

Now, with Anthony Rendon off the board, he's clearly the best remaining position player in free agency. He's projected to earn a multi-year deal, and to be worth four to five wins in 2020. As FanGraphs wrote when projecting out his future based on historical comparisons: "Donaldson was really good in 2019 and that means he’s very likely to be really good in 2020 and pretty good for a couple years thereafter."

Quite right, and so he ought to have plenty of suitors -- although third base is deeply, incredibly stacked full of talent right now, which limits his market somewhat. He'll land somewhere soon, likely on a three- or four-year deal. Where? Which teams need him the most? Let's count it down.

The teams that don't really need a third baseman

30-19) Astros, Angels, Rockies, Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, A's, Padres, Blue Jays, Mariners, Reds, Giants

Right away, that's a third of the sport, because third base is phenomenally (perhaps historically) deep these days. The teams above employ Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Matt Chapman, Rafael Devers, Manny Machado, Eugenio Suárez, Yoán Moncada, and so on. Others have players who aren't as good as Donaldson -- like Evan Longoria or Kyle Seager -- but aren't going to be displaced for him, either. It's true that the Cubs may trade Kris Bryant; even if they do, Donaldson isn't likely to be the replacement.

It'd be fun if the Blue Jays shifted Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to designated hitter and brought Donaldson back, wouldn't it? Doesn't seem terribly likely. He's not going to land on any of these rosters.

The non-contenders who probably aren't a fit

18-14) Orioles, Tigers, Pirates, Royals, Marlins

Donaldson hasn't played in a World Series, and he's 34 years old. It's unlikely any of these clubs get to October before he retires, and so it's difficult to see him choosing anyone from this group.

The contenders that could probably use him, but won't go get him

13-10) D-backs, Yankees, Mets, Indians

These actually somewhat split into two groups. Donaldson is better than Jake Lamb/Eduardo Escobar in Arizona, and he's better than Gio Urshela/Miguel Andújar in the Bronx. But each of those teams just spent big on starting pitchers (Madison Bumgarner to the D-backs, and Gerrit Cole to the Yankees), and if they plan on continuing to add, displacing their current third baseman isn't likely to be on the menu.

It's different for the Mets and Indians, who have good third basemen who are easily capable of playing other spots. The Mets already play Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis all over the field, and could continue to do so. The Indians actually already did this once, when they traded for Donaldson in 2018 and moved José Ramírez to second. They don't currently have a second baseman or enough offense. That said, the Mets and Indians haven't shown any public interest at all.

The dark horses

9-6) Rays, Cardinals, Brewers, Phillies

Here we have four teams who are all imperfect fits in some ways, even though there's good arguments for each of them.

Take the Rays, for example. They just signed Yoshi Tsutsugo and probably aren't going to hand out the kind of contract Donaldson would require. But baseball-wise, he fits them incredibly, because with Tommy Pham traded to San Diego and Avisaíl García, Matt Duffy, and Jesús Aguilar all off to free agency, Tampa Bay's lineup leans very lefty-heavy. Their best righty hitter is either Hunter Renfroe or Yandy Díaz, and that's not likely good enough.

Or the Cardinals, who have made it clear that adding offense is their priority this winter, yet haven't yet actually made any moves to resolve that. Matt Carpenter just hit a mere .226/.334/.392 (91 OPS+), and could be shifted to a multi-positional backup role, or otherwise traded out of town.

The Brewers don't have a third baseman. It's no more simple or complicated than that. Last year, all 162 of their third-base starts came from Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw, Hernán Pérez, Cory Spangenberg and Tyler Saladino. None are currently in the organization, and neither Mark Mathias nor Luis Urías are going to be the full-time starters there in 2020.

The Phillies might have a third baseman ... or they might not. Signing Didi Gregorius pushed Jean Segura off of shortstop, likely to second base, which might push Scott Kingery to third, unless he's playing center and prospect Alec Bohm is playing third, unless ... well, you get the idea. It's complicated. The Phillies have been connected to Donaldson this winter, though it's unclear if signing Gregorius removes them from the conversation. They could still use his bat.

The contenders that could fit him with a position switch

5-4) Dodgers, Twins

These teams don't need a third baseman, because they've already got pretty good ones. Justin Turner hit 27 homers with a 131 OPS+ for the Dodgers, and Miguel Sanó hit 34 homers with a 138 OPS+ for the Twins. But in each case, a Donaldson addition would be less about improving third base and more about shoring up the lineup elsewhere by moving the incumbent.

The Dodgers could move Turner to first base, sharing some time with the left-handed and multi-positional Max Muncy, while also playing him enough at third base to keep both Donaldson and Turner (who just turned 35) healthy. The Twins could shift Sanó to first base, where they don't currently have a starter.

The Twins have been well-connected to him in rumors, and so have the Dodgers. It's easy to see either one of them landing Donaldson.

The teams that really, really could use him

3) Braves

Donaldson's trip to Atlanta worked out so well in 2019, why not sign up for an encore? For all the moves the Braves have made to reinforce their pitching staff this offseason, they haven't really done anything to the lineup other than bringing back Nick Markakis on a one-year deal, and he's expected to be a platoon piece at best. If the season began today, the Braves would roll with Johan Camargo or Austin Riley at third base, and each are considerable steps down from Donaldson. The Braves are reportedly still in the mix.

2) Rangers

Like the Braves, the Rangers have put a great deal of resources into pitching, adding Corey Kluber, Jordan Lyles, Kyle Gibson, and Joely Rodriguez, and like the Braves, they still have a pretty large hole at third base. Last year, Logan Forsythe and Asdrúbal Cabrera took the bulk of the work at the hot corner; neither is expected to return, and Nick Solak probably doesn't get the full-time job. That said, the Rangers may no longer be actively bidding.

1) Nationals

What better fit for this winter's second-best position player than the team that just lost the best position player in Rendon? The Nationals are reportedly "driving the bidding" for Donaldson, because even after re-signing Stephen Strasburg, the loss of Rendon puts the team a step back from where it ended in 2019. As an added bonus, the Nats would take away one of the best hitters from their main division rival in Atlanta.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.