The Nationals are interested in Josh Donaldson, this much we know. But how far are they willing to go to try to lure the top remaining free agent third baseman to D.C. in the hope he can fill the very large hole created by Anthony Rendon’s departure?
Donaldson won’t come cheap. That has become obvious. The veteran slugger, who turned 34 last week, appears likely to get a four-year deal for something in the vicinity of $100 million. That’s a steep price for any player at his age.
Here’s the list of position players currently making an average of $25 million per year: Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, Miguel Cabrera, Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout and Rendon. That’s it.
The only player on that list 34 or older is Cabrera, who is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time but who hasn’t hit at an elite level since 2016 when he was ... 33 years old. The Tigers, remarkably, still owe him an average of $31 million each of the next four years, at the end of which he’ll be 40.
So $25 million a year for Donaldson for his age 34-to-37 seasons would be a real gamble. That said, the guy has been an awfully good player (both at the plate and in the field) for quite a while now.
Consider this: Donaldson has received MVP votes in six of the last seven seasons, finishing in the top four three times during that stretch. Since 2013, he has averaged 30 homers, 30 doubles and an .895 OPS. He’s one of only five big leaguers who can make that claim, joining Trout, Goldschmidt, Arenado and J.D. Martinez. That’s elite company.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration Donaldson’s elite defensive skills. FanGraphs.com rates him the fourth-best defensive third baseman in baseball since 2013, behind Arenado, Machado and Kyle Seager and just ahead of Rendon.
Is he comparable to Rendon? No. But he’s not far off, with age perhaps the biggest factor hurting his case.
So, again, how far should the Nationals be willing to go to sign Donaldson? This is where it gets even trickier, because of the other teams seeking his services: at minimum, the Braves, Rangers and Twins.
The Braves just saw firsthand what a difference Donaldson could make in their lineup, and you wouldn’t think they’d be eager to let him go now, especially with such a lack of fallback options at third base. The Rangers (who lost out on Rendon) are still looking to make their big splash as they prepare to open a new ballpark. The Twins, who won 101 games, desperately want to make the kind of improvements that will allow them to finally advance in October after several quick exits.
All of that could drive up the price on Donaldson. Would somebody go beyond $100 million over four years? It’s entirely possible.
So how motivated are the Nationals to get this done? Do they have a predetermined limit here? Remember, there are still luxury-tax implications to consider, and the addition of a $25 million-a-year player would leave much less room to make more moves while avoiding the league-mandated penalties.
There are only five more shopping days until Christmas. The Nationals aren’t going to find a sale on Donaldson at this point. They’re going to have to fight the crowds and pony up if they want to put their new third baseman under the tree in time.