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Implications of the Josh Donaldson trade on the Yankees roster, payroll, prospects

Donaldson’s contract brings the Yankees over the first luxury tax threshold, potentially influencing their willingness to do further business this spring.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

In a move that came out of left field (or at least down the third base line), the Yankees traded Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins for Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt. This move has far-flung implications for the Yankees’ current roster construction, payroll situation, and prospect pipeline. With that in mind, let’s break down where they stand and what they still have left to do before the season starts.

Roster Implications

With Sánchez and Urshela off to Minnesota, the Yankees created vacancies at catcher and third base. Donaldson immediately fills the need at the hot corner as the presumed starting third baseman, though it should be noted that Donaldson took roughly a quarter of his PAs at DH last season. DJ LeMahieu is more than capable of covering third base duties when Donaldson gets a day off in the field.

It’s no secret the Yankees’ number one priority this offseason was shortstop, and barring further additions the starting job appears to belong to Kiner-Falefa. He is an above-average fielder at short and won the AL Gold Glove Award at third in 2020. As for catcher, Jack Curry of YES Network indicated the Yankees’ current plan is to platoon the lefty-swinging Rortvedt and righty-hitting Kyle Higashioka behind the plate.

Contract Review

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Yankees will be taking on the entirety of the $50 million owed to Donaldson. He is in the final two years of the four year, $92 million deal he signed with the Twins prior to the 2020 season. Per Baseball Prospectus, Donaldson will be paid a base salary of $21 million this year and next. He was paid a $2 million trade bonus by the Yankees upon his acquisition, and the 2024 team option on his deal has now converted to a mutual option with a $6 million buyout. His deal includes a five team no trade list and the following escalators for awards placement: $250,000 for MVP, $100,000 for second, $75,000 for third, and $50,000 for fourth through sixth. $100,000 for World Series MVP. $50,000 each for LCS MVP, All-Star, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger.

Kiner-Falefa is a Super-Two player entering his third of four years of arbitration eligibility and is projected to earn $4.75 million. Rortvedt has accrued less than one year of MLB service time and is therefore pre-arbitration-eligible and will likely make around the minimum.

Payroll

Sánchez and Urshela’s departures free up roughly $14.55 million in estimated arbitration earnings for 2022. However, Donaldson, Kiner-Falefa, and Rortvedt’s additions will likely bring the Yankees’ 2022 payroll above the CBT’s first threshold of $230 million. Baseball Prospectus’ Cot’s Contracts estimates the 2022 CBT payroll at just over $236 million, meaning they would be first-time payors after resetting their repeat offender status by sneaking under the $210 million threshold in 2021. As things stand right now, they’d be paying a 20 percent tax on the $6 million and change they are over the threshold, or roughly $1.2 million.

Prospects

For months now, it’s been rumored that the Yankees would pursue a stopgap to hold down the shortstop position until their top prospects — Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza — graduated to the majors. Kiner-Falefa’s acquisition appears to confirm this line of thinking, allowing the Yankees to be patient with Volpe and Peraza’s eventual promotions. Volpe finished last season at High-A while Peraza played eight games at Triple-A.

As for catcher, Rortvedt’s addition gives the Yankees more time to evaluate their catching prospects in the minors before further contemplating promotion. Austin Wells is the team’s top catching prospect, and though questions linger about his ability to play the position long-term, there is now no immediate hurry for him to leap to the majors. The same goes for their other catching prospects like Josh Breaux and Antonio Gomez.

What’s next?

As I mentioned above, it appears the Yankees have indeed opted for the stopgap shortstop route by bringing in Kiner-Falefa. Despite the historic class of free agent shortstops that included Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, and Javier Báez, the Yankees never showed a terrible amount of interest in the quintet of stars at any point during the lockout. That said, Kiner-Falefa’s addition does not completely rule out a marquee signing at short — with Correa and Story still unsigned — it just makes it that much more unlikely.

As for other additions, the most likely upgrade will be to first base. Both Jack Curry and Jon Heyman identified the position as the team’s next target, with Curry naming Matt Olson and Heyman naming Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo. Olson’s trade to the Braves yesterday takes one of those names off the board, and given the Dodgers’ interest in Freeman and Yankees’ familiarity with Rizzo, it’s looking like the latter is the more plausible fit. That said, the Yankees still have LeMahieu and Luke Voit to play first should no reinforcements arrive.

That leaves centerfield and the starting rotation as the two areas most in need of a facelift. Aaron Hicks’ perennial injury concerns and declining defense render him an unreliable option to cover center for an entire season, and with scant options on the free agent market, the Yankees likely lean toward a reunion with Brett Gardner.

The free agent starting pitching market has also thinned considerably — Zack Greinke and Michael Pineda are the best options remaining. Therefore, should the Yankees decide to bring in another starter, a trade is looking the likelier scenario. The A’s and Reds appear to be in full-scale fire sale mode, so keep an eye on the likes of Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, and Tyler Mahle.