The Yankees’ 2022 season through all of its ups and downs has certainly given us plenty to talk about. There has been more than one head-scratching move in recent memory, and it is very easy to assume a position of everything is wrong, and wholesale changes are a must when nothing is quite that simple.
The harder reality is that even certain moves that looked like slam-dunks at the time also delivered questionable results at best, and no case better represents that than the acquisition of Josh Donaldson.
This front office certainly made moves that were questioned when they happened, and the outcome was virtually exactly of what most feared. Take the acquisition of Isiah-Kiner Falefa to be the team’s everyday shortstop, when there were clearly many better options on the market, even if the team didn’t want to hand out a 10-year deal for one of the top free-agent shortstops, which can be debated in its own right.
For as much as his defense was praised, rightfully or not, IKF’s hitting was enough of a liability in the postseason that he came as far as being benched in crucial games. For the most part, that went exactly as expected, but that wasn’t the case for every move made ahead of this season, and with that, we turn our attention to Josh Donaldson.
The former AL MVP was acquired via trade in the offseason, and although it was generally well understood that he wasn’t the same hitter from his Toronto days, Donaldson was still one of the better hitting third-basemen in the sport. From 2019 through 2021, Josh Donaldson had a .865 OPS and 69 bombs in 1087 at-bats.
Donaldson in his form at the time of the trade was the exact type of player the Yankees needed to compliment a lineup headlined by Aaron Judge, and clearly a significant improvement over Gio Urshela.
Between his $21 million salary, and the Yankees’ willingness to not ask for money to offset it, Cashman was able to negotiate a deal that didn’t have the Yanks giving up too much for a player on a somewhat reasonable salary for the production he was delivering, and without a huge long-term commitment. Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez were players the Yankees were ready to move on from.
Now, the most negativist of prognosticators could have looked at this trade as a possible handicap for the Yankees to bring in a top shortstop, especially when it was clear that the deal from the Twins standpoint served to clear up room to sign Carlos Correa, but the likely reality is that the Yankees were not signing one of those names and chose to do this trade, not that this deal blocked them from being more aggressive on the market.
Here we are at the end of the year, and it is abundantly clear that Josh Donaldson had a steeper decline than anyone saw it coming. The Yankees’ third baseman had the worst hitting line of his career and was significantly outplayed at the plate by Urshela. Urshela had a 119 wRC+, while Josh Donaldson’s was 97.
In full disclosure, this serves more to illustrate how poor Donaldson was at the plate, and not necessarily to say that the Yankees would’ve been that much better off with Urshela. Donaldson was still far superior as a fielder, making up for much of the advantage that Urshela had with the bat.
Pinstripe Alley colleague Esteban Rivera, covered some of Donaldson’s struggles at the plate with a recent piece. Ultimately, hitters — even the great ones — don’t usually bounce back to their old ways after such a steep decline late in their careers, but it’s hard to give up on a player that was still very productive as late as 2021, and the Yankees may not have many better options.
The Yankees’ third baseman is still owed a little under $22 million for 2023, and with his performance at the plate, it is hard to imagine any team taking his contract without the Yankees eating up a significant chunk of it. By sitting in the 90th percentile in Outs Above Average at the hot corner Donaldson still was able to deliver positive value and was one of the reasons why this defense improved so much from last year, so there’s something in his game worth acquiring rather than looking at it as a straight up salary dump, but it’s still going to be a difficult roster spot to open up.
As hard as it may be to admit it, the Yankees might be better served looking to improve other areas like shortstop, for instance, and simply ride it out with another year of Josh Donaldson. Even if his 2022 form is the new Donaldson, his defense production makes it more reasonable to maintain him rather than eat up part of his contract only to move him for nothing, and be left with another hole to fill. There’s an entire offseason to sit through so we’ll see what Brian Cashman comes up with, but this is a case where things went south about as quickly as you could imagine.