Why do the Yankees view Josh Donaldson as a worthwhile investment?


It’s unclear if a short-term one- or two-year contract for Carlos Correa or Trevor Story is or was a possibility, but New York Yankees fans would’ve liked to think that kind of a deal would sway at least one of those stars to the Bronx with hopes of succeeding in pinstripes before hitting free agency again as early as 2023.

Consider that prospect completely dead (unless the Yankees trick us again with a wild gear-shifting trade that leaves you baffled) because they just paid that premium for Josh Donaldson in a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Twins.

New York sent Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to Minnesota for infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa, catcher Ben Rortvedt and Donaldson. They will eat all of the $50 million owed to Donaldson through the 2023 season.

So they’re willing to spend … but not really? Their refusal to pay for top free agents in recent years (outside of Gerrit Cole) continues to be a pertinent topic of conversation. And it’s obvious the franchise is trying to minimize financial risk in every respect.

The Yankees can always justify looking at paying a premium for a player who brings something to the table they don’t have, and Donaldson’s last two full seasons (2019, 2021) show that they’re willing to take a short-term financial risk.

We’ll get into Donaldson’s attractive stats in a moment, but so far, since 2019, the Yankees have invested a total of $234 million in Donaldson, Aaron Hicks and DJ LeMahieu. Throw in an ill-advised contract extension for Aroldis Chapman and you can tack on another $48 million to that number. Meanwhile, the rest of the Yankees’ rotation outside of Gerrit Cole consists of guys making under $12 million plus a number of others in the pre-arbitration process.

What do the Yankees see in Josh Donaldson after the trade with Minnesota?

In short, the Yankees continue to pass on top talent in free agency (again, outside of Cole). Before Cole came the investments in Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury, which was the last notable splurge from the front office.

Now it’s all about detecting every inch of value and avoiding throwing more money than desired at stars and/or needs. Long extensions for Hicks and LeMahieu to minimize short-term luxury tax hits? Check. A short-term deal with Donaldson to fulfill a specific need while also finding an alternative to a blockbuster contract? Done.

And it just all falls in line with general manager Brian Cashman’s apparent unwillingness to trade for star players if the prospect package is deemed too high for his liking. Every trade is catered to minimize risk instead of just taking the plunge and going for the jugular … which is exactly what this most recent trade feels like, unless there are more moves coming to complement it.

Let’s see what the Yankees might value here enough to pay Donaldson a  $25 million AAV. For starters, his OPS+ numbers from 2019-2021 were 126 (155 games), 132 (28 games) and 127 (135 games). In 2019 and 2021, he had very good numbers in clutch situations:

  • 2019 RISP – .267 with a .917 OPS, 9 homers, 53 RBI and 21 walks in 120 at-bats
  • 2021 RISP – .253 with an .801 OPS, 4 homers, 38 RBI and 17 walks in 91 at-bats
  • 2019 “Late and Close” – .250 with an .860 OPS, 5 homers, 17 RBI and 15 walks in 76 at-bats
  • 2021 “Late and Close” – .263 with a .996 OPS, 4 homers, 11 RBI and 18 walks in 57 at-bats

Since 2019, Donaldson is fifth among MLB third basemen in wRC+ (126) and only trails Alex Bregman, Jose Ramirez, Justin Turner and Rafael Devers. He’s also fourth in wOBA (.366) and OBP (.367).

But there is a problem. This isn’t a defensive upgrade necessarily. Though the advanced metrics never gave Urshela any credit, the same goes for Donaldson — plus, he’s aging and has a declined range. He has only 10 Defensive Runs Saved in 2,255 innings and an Ultimate Zone Rating of -2.3. Then again, he’s made only 26 errors and brings more to the table thanks to the good old eye test.

It’s just all weird. Gio Urshela falls victim to injuries and a team-wide regression and he’s immediately shipped out the door despite all-around above-average play and a cost-effective salary. At some point, it’s just a bit confusing where the Yankees’ priorities lie. They had two years of a versatile Urshela left at about ~$15 million total and instead opted for an admittedly better player but for $35 million more despite the fact they’re paying for his age-36 and -37 seasons. They could’ve used that extra $35 million for … a lot more, no?

Nonetheless, this is what we have. Now we just need Donaldson to settle that beef with Gerrit Cole and everything will hopefully be fine.