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Josh Donaldson and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trade

The Yankees released the controversial third baseman, closing the book on a regrettable chapter in team history.

Chicago Cubs v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Just when it looked like the Yankees would give at-bats to Josh Donaldson when he was healthy enough to return in mid-September, the organization finally decided to cut the cord. On Tuesday, they announced his official release.

Simply put, there was not much to gain if Donaldson returned and took valuable playing time from the young players. Oswald Peraza, Everson Pereira, Oswaldo Cabrera, and others need to get every plate appearance available. They are in the team’s 2024 plans and Donaldson, well, isn’t. Merely having him on the roster would cost one of their 28 spots in September best served for someone who will play a role in the seasons ahead.

The Yankees paid Donaldson $21 million each in 2022 and 2023, and are responsible for the $6 million buyout present on his $16 million mutual option for 2024, one that never stood a chance of being picked up. In return for that money, the team got a .207/.293/.385 triple slash with 25 homers and a 94 wRC+ in 165 games. He was horrible this year, with a .142/.225/.434 line, 10 homers, and a 75 wRC+, though hamstring and calf injuries also left him with precious little playing time to improve. The savant-like skills at the plate that once made him an MVP were a thing of the past.

The evidence says Donaldson’s stint with the Yankees was a complete failure. His bat flips on fly balls that weren't going out turned him into a punchline, and he flopped when it counted the most, striking out 10 times in 16 plate appearances against the Astros in last year’s humiliating ALCS sweep (with a .077 average and a .404 OPS). Donaldson was also involved in more than a few controversies; from his dustup with Tim Anderson to his public rant about his teammates’ lack of support after the incident, he was never too popular among fans or even in his own clubhouse.

MLB insider Jeff Passan said it himself a few days ago, in a chat with Michael Kay:

“The Donaldson trade was bad from the start because the Yankees knew just how poorly he was getting along with people in Minnesota. There was some toxicity going on there.”

Maybe the Yankees didn’t care about the intangibles. Perhaps they thought they wouldn’t affect the roster and decided to prioritize the on-field production they thought they were acquiring.

At the time, Donaldson was coming off a solid 2021 in Minnesota: .247/.352/.475, 26 home runs and a .827 OPS (125 wRC+) in 135 games. New York knew that getting 2015’s version of Donaldson, the MVP one, was a pipe dream, but maybe they thought he could, at least, be his 2021 version for them. He wasn’t.

After all, he was 36 when he first took the field in pinstripes in the spring of 2022. A decline in skills was a real possibility, one that the Yankees probably underestimated.

In the end, the trade wasn’t particularly fruitful for any team.* Donaldson has been released and Ben Rortvedt has mostly been injured, ineffective, or hanging out at Triple-A, while Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela aren’t even on the Twins anymore — though it is worth noting that the popular Urshela has outproduced Donaldson across his final two seasons of team control. Only Isiah Kiner-Falefa has some sort of a role with one of the clubs, and he’s also due to hit free agency this fall.

*The Yankees taking on Donaldson’s money did clear room in the Twins’ budget to sign Carlos Correa to what effectively became a one-year deal when he opted out. He was excellent for a sub-.500 team in 2022 but despite Minnesota leading the AL Central in 2023, he has been mediocre after signing a new $200M contract.

More than a failed transaction or a trade that didn’t work out, Donaldson represents the Yankees’ extreme (and damaging, to some extent) loyalty towards aging veterans, a situation that affected roster construction and probably Trade Deadline decisions, too. They gambled on a player in his mid-30s continuing to hit, paid the price when he didn’t, and then stubbornly rolled the dice on him again in 2023. They insisted that he would rebound and instead, Donaldson churned out the worst campaign of his career.

Donaldson has had an amazing run as a big leaguer; anyone would be a fool to say otherwise. Any hitter capable of accumulating 276 home runs and a 130 OPS+ is worthy of widespread recognition, and he has an extremely good chance to join the recently-honored José Bautista on the Blue Jays Level of Excellence. For the Yankees, however, it’s time to think about the future and not the past, and the former MVP has no place in what’s ahead for the Bombers.