Devil's Advocate: Why the Josh Donaldson Deal Isn't Good for the Twins
Image courtesy of © Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports[DISCLAIMER: My punishment (okay, not actually a “punishment” per se) for writing and publishing a piece on Matt Hall the day the Bringer of Rain was signed was writing a piece opposing the signing. Mr. Donaldson, I assume you’re reading this and please know that I love you’re going to wear a Twins uniform for the next few years!]
I think the easiest opposition to this, which I’ve seen on Twitter, is to say that the Twins haven’t answered their biggest need in a starting pitcher. Miguel Sano and C.J. Cron played passably at the hot corners in 2019 so bringing them back and saving the money for a frontline starter, whether it be via free agency or trade, is how $92 million should have been spent.
Possibly the next easiest criticism is his age. Giving a four-year, $92 million deal to a guy entering his age-34 season is undoubtedly a risk. I think there are two parts to this theory, which is to look at the average aging curve for him as a hitter and him as a defender. In a series of articles from Jeff Zimmerman, he explored the topic of the aging hitter and found an interesting pattern: on average, hitters enter the league at their best and decline as they years go one. In other words, there is not a true aging “curve”.
Using wRC+ as the measurement , Zimmerman created the above display to show the aging curve. As noted in the legend, each color represents a different era where the “06 to 13” era is the post-PED’s era and is the data that we should use to predict how Donaldson will age. In 2019, his age-33 season, Donaldson had a wRC+ of 132 and Zimmerman’s data would suggest that Donaldson would decrease in 2020 so much so that he would become a below average hitter and end his tenure as a Twin as an awful hitter. Although this much of a decline at the plate seems unlikely, I think it’s fair to think that some decline will happen each season from 2019 to 2023 and that we will likely be paying Donaldson more than he is worth in the last year or two of his contract.
On the other hand, the defensive aging “curve” is a little harder to predict as defense is generally harder to measure anyway. Regardless, Jeff Zimmerman found a similar pattern when using UZR to predict future performance.
Although Donaldson’s UZR numbers have been a bit sporadic, which isn’t unusual, he’s been an “above average” defender or worse by FanGraphs standards since 2016. Using the chart above, it’s likely that he will be a liability at third base for at least half of his contract. With the extension of Sano, there won’t be anywhere for Josh to go other than becoming a designated hitter. Maybe this was one factor of choosing the Twins over the Braves?
The final opposition to this article is looking at the impact a $23M average annual value (AAV) salary will impact on keeping our current young studs like Berrios and Buxton, our future prospects like Lewis, Graterol, etc., and/or acquiring another impact player. Although it’s a step in the right direction, the Donaldson signing put the Twins right in the middle of the pack, in terms of payroll, at about $138M.
There are currently only four teams in Major League Baseball who have more than one player who is averaging $20M or more in AAV, so it seems unlikely the Twins would join such a small group of teams. Even if we lower the AAV to $15M there are only 10 teams who have more than one player that make as much.
In short, acquiring a second impact player via trade or free agency seems unlikely. If any of the players mentioned above want to test the waters of free agency then the Twins will likely lose out in a bidding war, which means they will need to sign those players to team friendly deals like they did with Polanco, Kepler, and Sano. This relies heavily on the players preference of security over money and the players becoming or remaining as big reasons for the Twins winning.
As with most multi-year deals, there is some risk involved. The longer the contract and the older the player the more the risk increases. In the end, time will tell if the Josh Donaldson contract provides the value that all Twins fans are assuming it will.
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