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My Reaction To The Donaldson Trade

My Reaction To The Donaldson Trade

by Cary Greene

March 15, 2022


My take on the blockbuster trade? Obviously the Yankees projections change quite a bit due to this trade. Basically, the Yankees lost very little impact. Meanwhile, they moved the needle in all regards.

Potential Domino Effect:

Perhaps the biggest question at this juncture is where, and how, do the Yankees utilize DJ LeMahieu going forward? Does he play mostly first base now? What of the trade rumors that had connected the Yankees to Matt Olson? It does very much appear that the Yankees might be considering moving Gleyber Torres, certainly DJ LeMahieu’s negative $24.2 million trade value (per would make it exceptionally difficult, but not impossible, to move LeMahieu.

Torres meanwhile has a positive $10.8 million trade value due to his remaining 3 years of team control and his relatively affordable $5.75 million contract. Some sort of Domino Effect will happen next, with this blockbuster deal being a clear sign.

The Big Name Piece: Josh Donaldson:

Losing Gio Urshela and gaining Josh Donaldson bumps the Yankees production projections instantly and moves the Bombers from ranking third in the division at third base to second as they leapfrog the production that Tampa will receive from their Taylor Walls and Yandy Diaz platoon. Looking at the numbers, Josh Donaldson is a big upgrade from Gio Urshela. Let’s peel back the onion a bit.

Urshela dealt with Covid related issues last year, then dealing with a nagging left-hamstring strain for a big part of the season, which could account for his dramatic fall off from 2019 production. (I don’t consider 2020 numbers much at all by the way, as it was a pretty difficult season for most players)

Meanwhile, Donaldson has always been a very good defensive third baseman, yet he struggled defensively last year as indicated by his poor UZR or -6.2, which is a bit of a red flag considering he’s now 36 years old. Still, his bat plays and he makes a lot of hard contact. He also has a terrific approach at the plate, evidenced by his low 21% Strikeout Rate and good Walk Rate of 13.6%.

What I don’t like is his propensity to hit into Double-Plays, he posted a wGDB of -3.1 and in a lineup already filled with players who hit into too many Double-Plays as it is, that’s, for me, red flag number two. He’s also gotten significantly slower as he’s aged. Fangraphs rated his four-component speed at 2.5 in 2019 and he registered a 1.3 last year. He’s a below average baserunner (-.6 UBR last year) but that’s a good thing because he was much more cautious due his declining footspeed and this resulted in him avoiding trying to go from first to third a lot more so in the past when he might have been gunned down from the outfield, now he tends to advance more smartly.

Donaldson’s Barrel Percentage is trending up from 2019 (15.2% to 17.4%) and his Hard-Hit Percent is doing the same (50.3% to 52.7%). He’s an absolute dead pull hitter, make no mistake about it, as he pulls 47.9% of his batted balls.

However, when we dive deeper, we find that his power is declining. Since 2019, his Home-Run to Fly Ball Percentage has dropped from 25.7% to 19.6%. He does hit right-handed pitching well enough (.243 avg last year) and his numbers tic up against shifts (.289 avg last year) – keep in mind MLB is almost certain to ban shifts this season, along with increasing base sizes and implementing pitch clocks as part of the new CBA.

There is a chance that Josh Donaldson is regressing rapidly and will continue to do so, therefore I’ll rely on projections to mitigate my fears here. The good news is that Steamers is projecting a bit of an offensively resurgent season for Josh Donaldson. Last year he put up a .827 OPS and Steamers thinks he’ll be closer to a .841.

More importantly, PECOTA projects him to hit 25 HR and 85 RBI’s. PECOTA is a much more sophisticated projection and they also identify players with similar numbers and similar career arcs to create their baseline projection. Then, they regress the projection more towards the player’s average performance, which means a star player can definitely beat their PECOTA projection. Josh Donaldson’s career has spanned 11-years to date.

PECOTA identified Ron Cey (17-year career), Gary Gaeti (20-year career) and Doug DeCinces (15-year career) as the players most similar to Donaldson and what he’s accomplished in his career to date. PECOTA thinks Donaldson will have a career similar to these players and they have a ton of data as to why they project these comps. It is very likely that Donaldson has a few very productive seasons left in him. He could wind up playing until he’s at least 40-years old – the players PECOTA identified as comps averaged age 40 as their retirement age.

All projections for Gio Urshela think he’ll be very similar to what he was last season for the Yankees, so the Yankees should feel confident that they’ve made a good and pretty safe overall decision in picking up Josh Donaldson, albeit a very expensive one as he’s owed $21 million this year and next, plus a mutual $6 million option for 2025. Donaldson played 135 games last year and 155 games in 2019, so he’s shown he can also stay on the field for the most part.

Has there ever been a more injury prone team than the Yankees of the last few years? This question is always in the back of my mind whenever the Yankees acquire a player. Is the player going to help the Yankees avoid injuries, or contribute to a pool of already injury-prone players currently occupying roster spots?

Again, we have some good news to talk about. Josh Donaldson is a pretty tank-like player by modern standards. He’s no Cal Ripken Jr, but his injury history, per, is pretty good. He’s only missed 207 games in his career-to-date and it seems the biggest concern with him is recurring calf injuries. He’s never dealt with structural damage, wrist injuries, concussions or other major issues or surgeries.

Subtracting Urshela and adding Donaldson is an upgrade, no matter how we slice it. Fears of Donaldson suffering significant age-related fall off appear to be very unfounded. He’s 36. Get over it! Ron Cey averaged a .784 OPS from age 36 to age 40. Gary Gaetti averaged a .766 OPS from age 36 to age 41 and Doug DeCinces averaged a .756 OPS from age 36 to age 38. There is a high probability that Josh Donaldson plays three or four more years, which easily covers the two years of team control the Yankees inherit, making Donaldson a very solid bet, which explains why all of the projection services see solid performance from him this coming season.

Here’s a breakdown on where the Yankees are at third base, as a result of this trade with the Twins. Based on anticipated production at the position, Donaldson is projected to now get the lion’s share of the at bats at the position. Previously, LeMahieu was projected to play the lion’s share of third-base innings, with Urshela projecting at both shortstop and third base. As a result, the Yankees will absolutely move the needle more now at third base and they’ve overtaken Tampa’s anticipated production, making the Yankees second in the Division now, trailing only Boston.

The Defensive Upgrade Piece of the Deal:

Turning our attention to Isiah Kiner Falefa, there is no doubt that he’s a solid defensive upgrade over Gio Urshela, who was pretty much an average shortstop. All the metrics on Falefa are very good, he posted a +10 DRS which really jumps off the page and his UZR was a +1.2 so suffice it to say, he’s a needle-moving defensive player.

Ehh-hemm, that said Falefa is a solidly below average right-handed hitter who is projected to be a .692 OPS overall addition to the Yankee lineup. He barreled up only a paltry 1.8% of his batted balls last season, with a very low 28.% Hart Contact rate. Like most singles hitters, he hits the ball on the ground a lot (53.7% GB Rate) but he does get a lot of infield hits as 8.8% of his grounders find holes. Most of his batted balls are of the medium contact variety (57.1%) so he’s certainly not going to make much loud contact.

At least we know who the new number nine hitter is right? Fret not, it’s not all bad news offensively, Falefa actually stole 20 bases last year while hitting .271 for the Rangers. Granted, he’s mostly a singles hitter but he’s a better fielder than say, Urshela or Tyler Wade and his biggest drawback, considering his speed, is really his low OBP (.312 last season). I think the Yankees could have done a lot worse if the plan was simply to put a stop-gap shortstop on the field.

With only four MLB seasons under his belt, the 27 year-old Falefa is truly entering the prime of his career. Based on what he’s accomplished so far, PECOTA identifies Marwin Gonzalez, César Hernández and Jose Altuve as being players similar to Falefa. The Yankees absolutely got younger, faster and better defensively by adding Falefa. Is he the player I wanted the Yankees to go for? No. I’m firmly on record for wanting the Yankees to sign Trevor Story.

Yes….Trevor Story, wow! He would have been a massive upgrade from Urshela, but all indications are that Story will absolutely get a five or six year deal that could eclipse $160 million, as many teams are now fighting it out for his services. The Cardinals and the Twins are both highly interested, along with the Brewers, the Red Sox and the Mariners. This makes Story pretty darn pricey for what he is. Considering what the Yankees gave up, getting Felefa and giving up very little is an excellent maneuver by Brian Cashman. Honestly, he did a fantastic job with this trade.

Obtaining Falefa is a mechanism that allows the Yankees to save the shortstop position for their prospects and I think Yankee fans will like his defense. The trade is far from an example of what a team that wants to go aggressively all-in to win the World Series. Instead, it’s an example of what the Yankees are under Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman – a team that’s good enough, but not great. We Yankee fans should therefore be very pleased with this deal overall.

Based on this trade, nothing changed in terms of the Yankees rank at shortstop in the Division, they are still projected to be a distant 4th in terms of projected production from the position. That said, the Yankees absolutely did improve. Here’s a breakdown of the current Yankees shortstop situation, at both the MLB and MiB levels.

Clearly I really like the trade overall and so far, we’ve looked at the two big pieces. Now let’s assess the toss in…

The Toss-In Who is Now the Yankees Starting Catcher:

It’s easy to tell you what Ben Rotvedt isn’t. He’s not a German sandwich or a piece of chopped-liver. Now for what he actually is: Rortvedt is by all accounts a very hard working player whose uncle was a former Padres and Rangers scout. He was also a 2016, second round Draft pick (#56 overall) of the Twins. He packs plus-arm strength and features terrific blocking skills and posts elite caught stealing rates. This makes him an ideal catcher to shut down other team’s running games and he may be a vastly more important piece of this trade than we may realize, especially if the Yankees are going to ever knock the Rays off the top of the hill in the American League East.

Still brand new to baseball’s highest level, Rortvedt is clearly a defense-first catcher who will have to hit just barely enough to keep his roster spot. He actually projects as a 1.5 WAR player this year, according to Fangraphs. Yankee fans have been moaning and groaning about Gary Sanchez’s lack of defense for years and now, they get the antithesis of Sanchez. They get a guy diving after balls in the dirt and firing howitzers to second base in the blink of an eye.

The Yankees had the worst catching in the Division heading into this trade and while this is still true, they are at least a lot better now defensively, behind the dish. Here’s a breakdown of what the Yankees currently have on the roster and in the pipeline:

This trade makes the Yankees a vastly better defensive team. It makes the Yankees younger and much faster also. It also makes them a lot better offensively, which may be hard to believe but it’s actually true. Sanchez had significant negative offensive value and Urshela was even worse. Not to mention, Sanchez was an injury concern. There is way too much to like about this trade when we properly dissect it and there’s really not much at all to dislike.

In fact, there’s really nothing to dislike at all. Donaldson will hold down the fort at third base for the Yankees for the next two years, which is about the time Trey Sweeney might be getting his first cup of coffee. Meanwhile, Falafel will do the same and can play plus defense at third base and shortstop. The Yankees have, at the time of this writing, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe moving up through the ranks and Falafel is a good stop-gap solution for now. He may not be Trevor Story or Carlos Correa, but this is the way!


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