By: Joe Pohoryles
The Washington Nationals are the 2019 World Series Champions.
Sorry, I just love being able to type that out and read it. The 2020 season is a few months away, and while fans will be celebrating the title all summer long until it must be defended next October, a major piece of that championship team will not be here for the party.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon was the team’s best positional player, and arguably the best overall. In 2019, he was an NL MVP finalist, he led the majors in RBI, and was selected to the inaugural All-MLB First Team. He provided clutch hitting and stellar defense through the season and the playoff run.
But after he refused to sign the seven-year, $210-215 million contract offered by the Nats earlier this season, he entered free agency, eventually agreeing to a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels near the beginning of free agency, and just like that, Tony Two Bags was out the door.
With a roster looking to repeat, in a division where their rivals have made moves to take the next step, a suitable replacement is crucial if the Nats want to make the playoffs. Nobody will be able to fully replace Rendon, but as of right now, the team essentially has three options. In three separate installments, I will evaluate these three options, so here is Part 1:
Option 1: Sign Josh Donaldson
Donaldson had a bounce-back season with the rival Braves in 2019, mashing 37 homers and 94 RBI in a season where he played over 150 games for the first time since 2016. With offensive numbers similar to that of Rendon (though he posted a less-than-ideal .259 BA compared to Rendon’s .319), the former MVP could make up for most of what the team loses with Rendon.
Plus, if Victor Robles, Trea Turner, and even the already-stellar Juan Soto can take steps forward at the plate, the offense may not see much of a decline. He’s not quite as strong a defender as Rendon, but he has not proven to be a liability, so he seems like the best option to keep the team in contention.
That, of course, would be the best case scenario. Donaldson will enter his age 34 season, and while his style of play does not suggest a steep decline, you never know how his game will age. Especially if his services warrant a four-year contract, which appears to be the case according to most MLB insiders, and being the best free agent on the hot corner available by a wide margin, his price tag will be high.
MLB Network’s Jon Heyman believes Donaldson will command four years, $100+ million from whoever lands him, and it’s not a one- or two-team race. Besides the Nats, the Twins are reportedly looking to land the third baseman, and the Braves are looking to bring him back. With several other teams looking to join the mix, the price could be driven up even further by the end of negotiations.
Is that a contract worth paying for a third baseman well into his 30s? The Nats signed a 32-year-old Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal back in 2011, and it’s been considered by some to be among the worst contracts in recent history. At the same time, the team made the playoffs four times during the life of his contract, when before they had been at the basement of the league. Werth was not the sole reason behind this, but he provided experience and leadership to a young clubhouse tasting success for the first time as a franchise.
His numbers were not great, and he made more than he was worth (pun not intended), but I don’t think it’s a contract the Nats regret handing out. The team never won a playoff series until after he left the team, but he got us pretty damn close in 2012. Donaldson will be two years older than Werth was, but four years is a lot easier to swallow than seven, and Donaldson will likely provide better offense for the first couple years of the deal, if not longer.
We have a championship-caliber starting rotation, and the young guys on the team will hopefully take a step forward from last season, so maybe slightly over-paying the best available replacement at third base isn’t the worst idea. The contract could age very poorly, or it could be just enough to give this core another shot in October. We won’t know until we find out, and we may never find out, but it’s an option the front office is strongly considering.
Projected infield in this scenario:
1B: Ryan Zimmerman*/Howie Kendrick
2B: Carter Kieboom
SS: Trea Turner
3B: Josh Donaldson
*= currently free agent