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Rays free agent target: Josh Donaldson

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Tampa Bay could be in a position to sign this top free agent

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Cleveland Indians - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Josh Donaldson is an elite talent.

Since the start of 2016, no third baseman (min. 1,000 PA) has had better offensive production than Donaldson’s 148 wRC+ or .392 wOBA, and during that stretch his 15.3% walk rate is second to only Matt Carpenter. His .264 ISO is second to only Nolan Arenado (who plays in Coors).

Even more remarkable is that these cumulative stats include a period of injury. It’s for that reason that 2018 was the first season since 2013 that Donaldson put up less than five wins above replacement.

Josh Donaldson is a former AL MVP, three time All-Star, two time Silver Slugger, and he’s entering his age-33 season as a free agent after spending time with the Cleveland Indians via trade last season — a trade that pissed off a lot of playoff bound teams (TL;DR — the rules state a traded player must be active within 72 hours, but the Indians stashed Donaldson on the Disabled List claiming a “new” calf injury until 10 days after the trade deadline).

In total, Donaldson played in only 52 games last season but was back to his old ways once he was activated from the DL, batting a 149 wRC+ with a 16.7% walk rate and .240 ISO in 16 games (60 PA) for Cleveland.

Donaldson has his highs and lows, but with that strong finish to the 2018 season, it’s possible The Bringer of Rain is back.The Rays are typically not in on a free agent of this caliber, but they could be, due to the aforementioned injuries, which saw Donaldson sidelined by shoulder and calf ailments, as well as the Scrooge McDuck levels of cash the Rays will be swimming in for 2019 (the payroll is currently barely over $30 million).

The Rays should aggressively pursue Donaldson this offseason.

Pray for Rain

With likely 20+ teams interested in Donaldson this offseason, it’s hard to imagine the Rays winning a bidding war, but what they could offer is a 90-win core and an easy place to rebuild value, or a chance to stick it out with a contender in a familiar division by building a contract that’s fair to the team and player.

A typical player coming off injury would seek a pillow contract to rebuild his stock before hitting the free agent market, but at this stage of his career, Donaldson likely prefers a bit more security and a bit more control over his future.

I think he ends up getting something like a one-year deal that has a long-term component. The basis is Cespedes first FA contract with the Mets, who re-signed with the Mets as a free agent in January 2016.

3 years/$75 million (2016-18)

$10 million signing bonus

2016: $17.5 million
2017: $23.75 million
2018: $23.75 million

Player may opt out after 2016 season; full no-trade protection

Cespedes indeed exercised his right to opt out of his contract when free agency began before rejecting a $17.2M qualifying offer before eventually re-signing with the Mets again on another contract.

The contract given to Cespedes provided the player with a lot of control, but was in effect a 1/$27.5 million contract with a player option for 2/$47.5 million.

It’s fair to anticipate that Donaldson’s contract would be a bit more muted in year one given his recent injury history, but an equivalent contract could be something like offering Donaldson a 4 year, $60 million deal with an opt out after year one.

4 years/$60 million (2019-22)

$7 million signing bonus

2019: $13 million
2020: $13 million
2021: $13 million
2022: $14 million

Player may opt out after 2019 season

You’ll note that this proposal does not include a no-trade protection, as that would not fit the Rays M.O., but it does provide a player opt out. That is not something we’ve seen from Tampa Bay before, but with nearly every team in baseball interested in Donaldson on a one-year deal, it’s going to take something creative like this to sign him.

In this scenario Donaldson locks up plenty of money should his injury concerns continue, but if he goes back to being MVP Donaldson or is healthy, he can opt out of the remaining 3/$40 million and go get a bit more. The Rays would then be in position to make a qualifying offer and recoup value if he chooses to sign elsewhere.

This price point is a bit behind where Jim Bowden projects Donaldson’s AAV to land, as the former GM expects a three year, $54 million contract. Another interesting and subjective data point is the annual SB Nation offseason simulation, where the Fake Rays just landed Donaldson for 4/$64 million with the same opt out.

A lot of teams could use Donaldson, but there aren’t many teams on the verge of playoff contention with a clear path to starting and significant cash to spend. Rays fans shouldn’t pin their hopes on the Rays spending money, but they should expect their franchise to be in on what is likely a top-10 offensive talent in the game.