Late-bloomer Josh Donaldson was 27 years-old when he broke out as a star with the Oakland Athletics in 2013. Donaldson emerged as one of the best third basemen in baseball, hitting for power (25 home runs and 64 extra base hits) and average (an above .300 batting average) while limiting strikeouts and taking walks.
Donaldson followed up that unexpected season with a strong 2014, where he again hit for power. Although the average slumped due to a low batting average on balls in play, it was clear that Donaldson would be an offensive force, while playing good, above average defense.
In case anyone had any doubts about Donaldson’s staying-power as an elite third basemen, he came out and earned the AL MVP in his first season with the Blue Jays. A near-nine win season in which he posted a 154 wRC+, the first of three consecutive seasons in which he created 50 percent more runs than the league-average hitter. Until last season, he had been a staple as one of the best infield power hitters in the game, and had moved up the ranks in a crowded and highly talented third base ranking.
Unfortunately, in 2018, Donaldson was hit by the injury bug, missing significant time and only playing in 52 games. In April, he suffered from right shoulder inflammation and then went on the DL again in late-May due to a calf injury. Donaldson ended up on the 60-day disabled list before being traded to Cleveland for the remainder of his walk-year.
There’s no doubt we’re currently witnessing a renaissance of third basemen. In 2018, 11 third basemen posted a wRC+ 115 or higher, not to mention the shortstops like Manny Machado and Carlos Correa who are more than capable of playing third base. Still, Donaldson will have his suitors.
Even though he played less than ⅓ of the season last year, his late-season stint with Cleveland did demonstrate his ability to be an impact hitter. He hit .280 and posted a .400 OBP in a small but telling sample of 16 games.
Donaldson will likely have a choice to make: does he take a one-year deal, try to improve his value, and go into the 2019 as a 34 year-old free agent, or does he take what is likely the last multi-year deal of his career?
While a multiyear deal is likely the answer, an interesting comparison can be that of Adrian Beltré. Beltré took the one-year deal with Boston when he was only one year younger than Donaldson. That make-or-break season was the best he had posted in six years, and earned him a five-year contract with the Rangers (an aside: that $80 million is the best money Texas has ever spent when looking at the ridiculous surplus value the Rangers got out of the deal).
Looking at one-year suitors, Donaldson could potentially sign with a contender such as the Cardinals, Phillies, or Braves, help one of those teams to the playoffs, and come out with a three or four year deal either in that same city, or elsewhere.
Donaldson can try to rebound his value and bet on himself coming back to form, but there are likely teams out there who already believe in him. Despite Donaldson’s injury-ridden 2018, there is certainly a team (or more likely teams) that may go for it and sign him to a multi-year deal.
Per the early offseason projections, he’s projected to be much of the same player we saw in 2017, with an expected age-adjustment. Steamer and FanGraphs’ Depth Charts define Donaldson as a 30-home run slugger, who walks enough to amass a suitable mid-.300s OBP. Adding to that decent and maybe above-average defense, and it’s possible that Donaldson could be the steal of the offseason.