St. Louis Cardinals: Sorry, Ryan, I’m not Joshing (Donaldson)
By Larry Levin
The St. Louis Cardinals have a big bat hole. My colleague Ryan Eisenauer proposed filling it with Blue Jays stud Josh Donaldson, and challenged me to rebut him. So here you go, my friend, consider yourself, um, rebutted.
You’re never going to hear me say that Josh Donaldson isn’t a freakish raker; he is. But my opposition to the move for the St. Louis Cardinals instead derives from three aspects of any deal for the slugger.
First, the one-year nature of the transaction; second, who he would displace on our roster or in the field; and third — the point Ryan plans to address in his follow up column — namely, what we might have to surrender for Donaldson, and why I think this final point might make Josh more of a mid-year trade candidate than an off-season one.
Before getting to the tripartite analysis, it bears repeating that nothing Ryan said is worthy of much debate, unless you think that his injuries or age suggest a risky 2018. I don’t; his WAR was on a proportional basis similar to his previous four years, and as Ryan points out, his WRC+ and most of his other offensive stats were wholly in line with his best career years. No problem there.
Related Story: Ryan's Donaldson piece
But this leads to my first point above, which is that the St. Louis Cardinals, as much as they need a batter of Donaldson’s ilk, need one for the long run, which I define as at least three years. Why? For several reasons. One is to build some leadership and chemistry around another leader, as we’ve seen questions about how and to what extent the team’s core (including their manager) is actually accomplishing that.
Surely, it’s possible that a Donaldson deal could be followed by a long-term signing. But can it be banked on? Not so much. That would take huge bucks and, depending on how Josh and his agents feel, may not be something they want to explore prior to free agency.
That leaves being stuck with a one-year deal, and offensive juggernauts simply aren’t that readily had. One can’t just say, oh, get Donaldson this year, and if he leaves, we’ll sign Manny Machado or trade for another bopper.
Absent a major extension to Donaldson after signing, the Cards would have to either assume another system bat could provide the oomph after Donaldson is gone, or go out and secure yet another big bopper by trade or free agency.
(I’m not even going to address whether the potential for a draft pick if Donaldson is tendered a QO after 2018 is worth any value in assessing the trade, because honestly, while that pick could provide some organizational depth for the future, it doesn’t satisfy the slugger need.)
Ok, on to point two: The assumption is that Donaldson as a Cardinal would play third base and that Jedd Gyorko would either shift positions or presumably not be an everyday starter. I have objections to each of these scenarios.
As I’ve written before, Gyorko was a truly steadying presence in the field, producing one of the top dWAR returns in the National League. With a team that has struggled immensely with defensive consistency over the last two years, this aspect of the overall team performance should not be taken lightly. To be fair, Donaldson has had some excellent defensive years, but not quite so much over the past two campaigns.
Surely Gyorko could move across the diamond to first, or as an alternative, so could Donaldson. But it seems doubtful that Josh would be thrilled about being displaced from the spot where he has played almost all his major-league innings. And I just don’t think the team is as strong in the field with Donaldson at third; capable, yes, as strong, no.
The one place I do veer from Ryan’s recitation of offensive stats is with Gyorko’s performance.
Other than an absolutely horrid July, Gyorko had a very good offensive year. Rank ordered, his other five months’ OPS (with September/October seriously limited by injury), are: 1.053, .861, .860, .818 and .743. And his OPS+ topped the previous year, despite 20 HRs instead of 30.
There’s a place in practically any MLB lineup with those numbers paired with a 1.9 dWAR.
With Ryan bullish on Jose Martinez and the full-year projections suggested by his 2017 stats, it’s hard to imagine how Gyorko could hold his starting spot.
Ryan tries to get around this by labeling Martinez as the starting right fielder in 2018, but as greatly as I respect my colleague, I think he must have been flipping channels when the Cards were on defense and conveniently ignored the -1.1 dWAR….in 307 plate appearances. Um, Ryan, c’mon, dude, really?
Which brings me to the third point, which is, what would the Cards have to surrender to land Donaldson? And this is less of a St. Louis Cardinals-specific point than a Toronto one; namely, how the seller sells a prospective deal. Back to that in a moment.
Teams are going to be loathe to give up major parts of their future for a one-year loaner unless they feel they are that chip away from betting the farm on 2018. When one examines the Cards’ roster in any detail, it’s hard to make the argument they stand as tall as many of the playoff teams this season, and so it’s quite the speculation that one banger will help them make up the difference.
There’s no question that short of about a dozen players, Donaldson does come close, when healthy, to picking up much of that difference. His 7 and 8 WARs (less whoever he would replace on the diamond) do suggest that he’s a formidable presence and a difference maker.
But is he enough to surrender a great deal of the future, which I think it would take? Let’s just pick a random quality package — Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader and Sandy Alcantara. Would it take that? Maybe. Would you GIVE that? Not me; it could wreck our short-term prospect depth for several years, even with a QO pick back in 2019.
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This is why I think (getting back to the seller’s view) Toronto is much more likely to wait on the 2018 mid-season trade deadline to float the Donaldson deals. Sure, they’ll probably get less for a half season, but with an eager, maybe desperate contender — think Cole Hamels from Philly to Texas in 2015 — they might not get THAT much less. And they still get a half season of Donaldson to evaluate if they themselves will be a buyer or seller at the deadline.
I agree with Ryan about the worth of Josh Donaldson, and I think he will make some MLB team, either his most recent one or a newbie, very happy in 2018. Unfortunately for the Cards, I don’t think it ought be them, at least until mid-season.
And fortunately for the Blue Jays, I think it’s entirely possible that if they show patience and play their own cards right, they can both have their Josh cake and trade it, too.