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Debating Josh Donaldson’s role on the Yankees

Josh Donaldson doesn’t seem to provide much value for the Yankees, but do they have any real alternatives?

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

When the Yankees acquired Josh Donaldson as part of March’s blockbuster deal with the Minnesota Twins, fans thought that the team was getting a power bat who didn’t strike out a ton, played strong defense at the hot corner, and injected fire into a team that looked rather lifeless at times last season. While he has certainly held his own defensively — his glove at third has helped the Yankees turn one of the worst defenses in 2021 one of the best this season — he’s fallen flat at the plate, and his attitude hasn’t so much injected fire so much as make him look like a fool on more than one occasion. With the Yankees lineup in need of a spark of some kind, I continue to wonder: what purpose does Josh Donaldson serve on this current team?

Donaldson’s bat has been worse than lackluster, especially of late. Since his four-hit game on August 8th, he has slashed just .169/.281/.247 with four extra-base hits (although one of them was admittedly pretty grand). After a stint on the injured list in late May, he has posted just an 85 wRC+. To put in perspective how bad that is, not only is it worse than Isiah Kiner-Falefa, it’s worse than Joey Gallo performed in the weeks leading up to his trade! And unfortunately, the Statcast data does not offer much that looks promising.

If his bat can’t be counted on to turn it around, the most obvious place where Donaldson provides value to the Yankees at the moment is on defense, where he has veritably been one of the premier defenders in baseball this season. His 8 DRS and 6 OAA are each tied for 5th among those who have played at least 100 innings at the hot corner. Even so, however, the argument can still be made that JD is the third-best third baseman on the team, at least defensively. DJ LeMahieu matches his 8 DRS and ranks just behind him in OAA (4, tied for 8th) in almost 350 fewer inning. And although he has not manned the hot corner so far this season, shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa won a Gold Glove there in 2020, courtesy of his 7 DRS, 6 OAA performance in 366.1 innings (roughly as many as LeMahieu has this season).

On top of that, Donaldson has not exactly been slick with the leather lately, and has been mired in what you might call a “defensive slump” over the last two months, one that has gotten worse in the last few days.

And so, I ask again: what exactly does Donaldson bring to the team at the moment? At this point in time, would it be better for the Yankees to employ an infield that puts LeMahieu at the hot corner daily, or perhaps even slide IKF back to third and let Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza spend time at shortstop? Perhaps — we’d only know for sure if they were to try either. It’s unlikely that either scenario plays out.

LeMahieu has been spending less time at the hot corner of late: since the start of August, he’s made just four starts at third, compared to 13 at first and eight at second. Although part of that has to do with Anthony Rizzo’s injuries, the team is likely also managing his workload there as he plays through a toe injury that has essentially sapped his performance at the plate. Additionally, although Aaron Boone did mention the possibility of IKF playing third (with Peraza at shortstop) while Donaldson is on the paternity list (which should be any day now), it seems like something the Yankees, who have repeatedly insisted that Kiner-Falefa is their starting shortstop down the stretch, are unlikely to do as more than a short-term measure.

All of this to say that, although Donaldson has not been very good, it seems like the Yankees are stuck with him at third base for the time being. Let’s hope that he can run into a few homers to justify his spot in the lineup.