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Milwaukee Brewers free agent targets: Josh Donaldson

The 2015 AL MVP would add significant production to the Brewers’ lineup

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The 2019-2020 offseason has proven to be fast paced and lucrative for free agents. That has been especially the case for several Brewers who all enhanced their worth in a Milwaukee uniform. Unfortunately that also means that the teams has some glaring holes. If we just look at the positional player group, the loss of Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas to free agency as well as the potential loss of Eric Thames (who became a free agent after his option was not picked up) resulted in the exodus of 9.9 fWAR at three positions. Between those three sluggers, they belted 88 home runs in 2019. That is a lot of offensive fire power for one team to lose from one season to the next.

By trading for Omar Narvaez, the Brewers replaced some of that production via a platoon between he and Manny Pina. First base has a number of options in the marketplace, so David Stearns is likely confident in finding decent production there. Third base is another story, and if the Brewers wanted to replace the production lost from the departures of Grandal, Moustakas, and Thames, the most efficient way to do so might be at the hot corner.

With that in mind, Josh Donaldson is the best option not named Anthony Rendon available. Donaldson was sidelined for part of the 2017 season with a calf injury, and he did not play for most of 2018 because of an injury to his shoulder. In just 219 plate appearances, he posted an .801 OPS between Cleveland and Toronto in 2018. While not bad, it was certainly not Josh Donaldson-worthy. The 2018 results as well as two straight seasons of injury entering his 30’s certainly affected his valuation moving into free agency for 2019. While he would have likely gotten a multi-year deal based on MVP level performances over three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, he decided to bet on himself and sign a 1-year, $23 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. It looks as if Donaldson’s bet is going to pay off, which might remove him from serious consideration to wear a Brewers’ uniform.

On the other hand, Milwaukee created financial flexibility by non-tendering a multitude of players as well as non signing Grandal, Moustakas, Drew Pomeranz, and Jordan Lyles. Might Stearns’ motive be to go after one big fish? If that is his rationale, might Josh Donaldson who he is casting his line for?

Josh Donaldson is expected to get a 3-4 year contract. predicted he would get a 3-year, $75 million contract. Just about everyone is signing for more than what predicted for them. With that in mind, 4 years, $100 million or more is very possible and maybe probable. Can the Brewers swim in these waters?

Making the potentially implausible assumption that they can, what would the Brewers get for such an investment? Between 2015 and 2017, Josh Donaldson was quite simply one of the best players in major league baseball. Playing for the Blue Jays, he slashed .297/.371/.568 in 2015, .284/.404/.549 in 2016, and .270/.385/.559 in 2017. He hit between 33 and 41 home runs while posting a wRC+ above 150 in each of those seasons. This is not likely the player he will be moving forward.

While once elite, coming into his age 34 season, he is still very, very good. Coming off the injury plagued 2018, Donaldson slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and a 132 wRC+ with Atlanta in 2019. His defense continued to be strong with 15 DRS for the Braves. Last season he was a 4.9 fWAR player, and his peripherals were also still very strong. Heck maybe he still is elite. Take a look below.

Donaldson just turned 34 years old and looks as if his decline has begun. Yet his decline might be a soft one. As Craig Edwards of Fangraphs points out, Donaldson is forecast for 4.5 fWAR across 644 plate appearances next season. Assuming half a win in decline over the following two seasons would make Donaldson a 12 fWAR player and one of the 30 best in the game over the first three years of the contract. In year four, assuming the half win of decline per year model, he would still be a 3.0 fWAR player. Edwards went onto to demonstrate Donaldson’s possible performance moving into his age 34, 35, and 36 seasons against players who had similar age 33 seasons.

Courtesy Craig Edwards at Fangraphs
Courtesy Craig Edwards at Fangraphs

Even with these comparisons, Donaldson looks favorable for the first year of a contract.

Courtesy Craig Edwards of Fangraphs

George Brett had a rebound season and Ben Zobrist improved by one WAR. Mark Grace is holding steady, but the rest are in fade mode at this point.

Courtesy Craig Edwards of Fangraphs

It looks like Jeff Kent and Bobby Grich had another good season in them. Others remain between 3.0 and 3.4 WAR, but great players like Brett and Robinson Cano begin to really fade at this point. The graphs outlined by Craig Edwards illustrate a major point. Between ages 34 and 36, very good to great players that even put up really good numbers at age 33 will fade, and that fade is likely to be pronounced at 36. A team signing Donaldson to three years can probably afford a third year fade. If the graphs are indicative of an aging curve that would be similar to Donaldson, a fourth year on a contract might be folly, and I am suggesting that there will probably be a fourth year requirement to sign Donaldson.

Josh Donaldson brings another concern. We know he is really good and should remain good moving into at least the next couple of seasons. However, 2017 and 2018 resulted in significant time lost due to injury for the first time in his career. Even if the decline in on-the-field performance is soft, he has to be on the field for such a contract to approach its value and injury risks increase with age. While renowned for his intensity and baseball acumen, he seems to have come to understand that he needs to think differently about how easy it is to get out on the field and play. That is a good thing and suggests his baseball acumen might overrule his intensity as he ages. Unfortunately in many cases even good sense can’t stop Father Time.

Donaldson will be 37 years old at the end of a four-year contract. The question remains is $25 million plus per season for a 34 year old player a worthy place to invest? There are a few examples to suggest that it would be at least in the first couple of years of the contract. For this player, the conversation is at least worth having.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant