Friday afternoon, at the stroke of three o'clock in the afternoon, the hot stove officially lit up. The baseball gods reached down to the handle, turned the heat on, and the flames burst up into the air. The time of the year where players take a seat and the executives and agents grab a glove and hit the boardroom had arrived. Are the Cardinals ready to go overboard?
While Bryce Harper and Manny Machado represent the Filet mignon and Ribeye on the offseason menu this winter, it would be unwise for the St. Louis Cardinals-or their fans-to sleep on former Toronto Blue Jay, Josh Donaldson.
As the rain continued to fall on my South City house, as it had been all week, I dug into the good, bad, and the glorified ugly of Donaldson and what he could bring to the Cardinals in 2019 and beyond. This is more like a long game courtship at a poker table than a shyness induced meet and greet. St. Louis and Donaldson have circled each other for years, including trade deadline stare-downs and offseason cups of coffee. Nothing sticks, but the desire is there on both ends. President of Baseball Operations probably has a speed dial for the guy by now.
It's not too late to make a deal and bring the rain. I understand Donaldson turns 33 years old on Dec. 8, and I don't care. While 2018 was an injury-plagued season for the veteran third baseman, Donaldson finished in thrilling fashion after a trade to Cleveland. In 16 games, a slash line of .280/.400/.520 showed there's plenty of thump and ability left in that bat.
2017 didn't feature a full dose of Donaldson either, but he did end up with 33 home runs, a .944 OPS, and 148 OPS+ in just 113 games. Donaldson produced a 4.8 WAR in 2018, following seasons of 7.7, 7.5, 8.5. and 7.6 WAR. He played in 155+ games in four straight seasons, so it isn't like the man has been injury-prone his entire career. He's had a bad couple year stretch, but the injuries, such as the one to his calf muscle, haven't depleted his bat.
Patience along with a mighty swing has helped Donaldson over the year. A walk rate that started around 11% in 2013 has climbed to around 15% in recent seasons, while the strikeout rate has never touched 30% for a season. Donaldson's lifetime wRC+ of 140 (100 is average) tells you all that you need to know.
I know what you, and Tommy Pham, are thinking right now. What does Fangraphs say about his 2019 chances? According to Steamer, Donaldson will play in 130 games, hit 27 home runs, slug .484, put up an on-base percentage of .366, and finish with a WAR of 4.6. Only 130 games? I'll take it. The Cardinals have a bevy of infield backups that can keep the water warm if Donaldson needs a breather. I'd rather have a very good 130 games of a player than 158 games of an alright or decent talent. You can't eat red meat every night of the week. Be reasonable.
What about the defense? Donaldson isn't a Gold Glove third baseman, but Fangraphs will tell you he's never cost his team a run in the field or posted a negative Ultimate Zone Rating in his career. Donaldson is reliable in the field without being magnificent.
What about the attitude? Think of Harper, without the Papelbon choked out episode. Donaldson brings a fire to the dugout that should remind Cardinals fans of Pham. An infectious positive blend of arrogance, joy, and unquestionable skill. He has fun out there, and others like that, especially when it isn't being shouted down to them.
Look at this way. The advanced age and past two seasons of injury problems will prevent Donaldson from taking any teams to the cleaners when it comes to the term of the deal. He will figure that out quickly if he plays hardball the rest of this year. The more he waits, the cheaper he will get. He doesn't have a 5-6 year deal in him, and I would be impressed if he got a four year deal.
The Cardinals should lay a lucrative three year deal on Donaldson's plate. Overpay him for the lack of long-term trust. Do the same thing they did with Carlos Beltran when he was getting older, yet still had something to give without being the hero. Three years and Nolan Gorman will be ready to be enshrined at third base. You could even throw an opt-out after two years as an appointment reminder for each side if it smoothed the whiskey going down the throat with the ink in hand.
If Donaldson turns that offer down, hold firm and wait. Let some other team get foolish and hand him a longer deal or wait for him to come back to the table. You assess a talent and dig your feet in for the long haul.
The Cardinals aren't in dire need of Donaldson's services. Sure, they could use him and he would bolster their lineup, but unlike a talent like Harper, they don't need to bend over backwards for him. It's three years too late for that. Donaldson may need the Cardinals more than he thinks.
Speaking of the former Nationals outfielder, the team can afford both players. Major League Baseball may not be a Monopoly board game, but it's also chess and not checkers. The duo may push their payroll towards $200 million for the season, but they have it. Trust me. The Boston Red Sox won their fourth World Series title since 2000 this past week; do you think they did it with a sticks and stones payroll? If you want to climb back into the rings with the heavyweights, you must be willing to stand in the middle and exchange blows.
You can forget about Craig Kimbrel. I'd love to have the Red Sox closer, but Bill DeWitt Jr. has only stated 150 times that the team won't pay a closer starter-type money. It's not happening. You can also bet they won't spend big money on a setup man either, as they are quietly figuring out how to bail out of the Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson airplanes.
With a rotation of starters adding up to around $30 million, the Cardinals should go all in on the lineup. For once, leave no trace of an understatement. It's been written countless times the past few weeks, as the Cardinals have watched a third consecutive October postseason from their living rooms instead of getting ready for one in a locker room. Be bold. Go where you have not gone before. Outbid them all.
If I were the Cardinals, I wouldn't just stop at adding one MVP-caliber player. I'd add two of them just to make sure 100 wins isn't out of the question for 2019 and beyond.
Make a statement by bringing the rain.