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Making sense of the Yankees’ commitment to Josh Donaldson

With just one year left on his contract, it appears the Yankees are prepared to stick it out with the veteran third baseman.

Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Speaking with reporters during the GM meetings, Brian Cashman dropped the following bomb on Yankees fans.

Immediately, a collective groan rang out around the Yankees universe when word got out that the front office views Josh Donaldson as next season’s starting third baseman. We’ve spilt a fair amount of ink in recent weeks examining what went wrong for Donaldson and why penciling the soon-to-be 37 year old in as the Opening Day starter would be misguided. However, today I’d like to figure out the Yankees’ rationale for this continued level of commitment to a player clearly on the decline.

In an offseason headlined by impact offensive contributors and star players at a position of dire need for the Yankees, the front office instead made a 36 year old Josh Donaldson their blockbuster acquisition, killing two birds with one stone with the inclusion of Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the package heading to the Bronx. They had their stopgap shortstop while simultaneously adding a former MVP with stellar defense at the hot corner and a bat the hitting coaches felt they could reawaken.

Through the first two months of the season, Cashman appeared justified in his course of action, with Donaldson the owner of a 123 wRC+ while placing among the league’s best in third base defensive metrics while Kiner-Falefa offered a slight improvement over the defense the Yankees had gotten from shortstop in recent years. Then injury struck, with Donaldson missing a week and a half with shoulder inflammation.

He returned a shell of the player he was pre-injury, finishing out the season with an 86 wRC+ across his final 95 games. The nadir of his campaign saw him go 1-for-13 with 10 strikeouts against the Astros as the Yankees were swept out of the ALCS. And now the Yankees want to reward him with the starting third base gig in 2023.

Before we get to the merits (or lack thereof) of Cashman doubling down on Donaldson, we have have to look at the dynamics behind his comments. By now, we understand that the Yankees prioritize two overarching goals as a business — to maintain payroll flexibility and to field a roster competitive enough to make it into the playoffs every season. When viewed through those two filters, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for the Yankees to trade Donaldson this winter, as much as we’d all love to see it.

He’s only under contract one more season, so he doesn’t interfere really with the Yankees’ desire to maintain payroll flexibility. He’s owed $21 million in 2023 with a $6 million buyout of his $16 million mutual option for 2024, which means they could sign Aaron Judge without risking entry into the highest tax surcharge brackets. They last dipped below the base Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2021 to reset their tax rate, were CBT payors in 2022 and figure to do so again in 2023. However, with Donaldson’s money off the books in 2024, they could sign Judge and still reset their tax offender status the season after next, keeping in step with the three-year reset cycle.

In order to move Donaldson, the Yankees find themselves in between a rock and a hard place. They’d either have to attach a higher end prospect to entice the acquiring team to take on a significant chunk of the money owed, or they eat that money themselves and send over a less touted prospect. Neither avenue seems like a route the Yankees would pursue, even while acknowledging Hal Steinbrenner’s distaste for paying when he doesn’t have to. What’s more, trading Donaldson just a year after his acquisition would be tantamount to an admission of failure by Cashman, something unseen except for the most extreme of circumstances (looking at you, Sonny Gray).

With all this in mind, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Yankees trade Donaldson. By no means is this agreement with Cashman and Aaron Boone voicing their support for the veteran and even less so an endorsement of him as the starting third baseman. Sure, he can still pick it at third, but there are very real signs of him being washed as a hitter. He can no longer hit the fastball, his pitch recognition is in the toilet resulting in his worst walk and strikeout rates in a decade, and the decline in bat speed is alarming. But he’s on the team, and as our own Jeff Middleton pointed out, Boone and Cashman were never going to throw a rostered player under the bus the first week of November. It looks like we just have to live with the controversial third baseman for one more year and cross our fingers that attitudes toward his viability as a starter change between now and Opening Day.