Does Josh Donaldson’s Signing Move Us Closer to a Blockbuster Trade?

The logjam of third basemen available slightly cleared up with Josh Donaldson's free-agent decision. Is a blockbuster trade now in the pipeline?
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The Twins reportedly signed third baseman Josh Donaldson on Tuesday night, adding a premier offensive player and former MVP to an already-potent lineup. Sure, it’s questionable to give four years and around $100 million to a 34-year-old with injury concerns, but there’s little doubt the impact Donaldson can make for a contending team. 

That’s why so many teams in need of a third baseman or a middle-of-the-order bat—such as the Braves, Nationals, Rangers and, to a lesser extent, the Dodgers—were supposedly in the running to sign him. Now, each of those teams have to look elsewhere, which very likely means the trade market. Might we be on the brink of a blockbuster? Let’s canvas the marquee names thought to be available.

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies

The evolution of Arenado’s relationship with the Rockies over the last year is remarkable. In February he signed an eight-year, $260 million extension to stay in Colorado, but now is reportedly dissatisfied with the organization. The Rockies have been in trade talks with both the Cardinals and Rangers over the last week, according to multiple reports, and he appears the most likely superstar to be traded

He’s appealing to teams because he’s 28, plays elite defense and is among the most consistent hitters in the game. He’s the only player to play in at least 150 games with an OPS+ of 120 or better in each of the past five seasons. In terms of downsides in a trade, it's hard to get past the $234 million he's still owed and a looming opt-out clause after the 2021 season.

Still, teams in contention with deep farm systems could be willing to sacrifice long-term prospects to win in the short term, especially if the Rockies are willing to pay some percentage of Arenado’s remaining salary. 

The Braves make the most sense to trade for Arenado. They have a hole at third base and in the middle of their order following Donaldson’s departure, and the Rockies are always looking to improve their pitching. Atlanta has three righthanded starters—Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and Ian Anderson—ranked among baseball’s top 100 prospects, per FanGraphs, and they are all on track to reach the big leagues in 2020. 

The Cardinals also have a trove of young, controllable starting pitchers in their rotation, bullpen and farm system. They need to upgrade their offense, especially if Marcell Ozuna signs elsewhere, and could give the Rockies at least one major-league-ready pitcher in addition to the prospects that’d be included in a trade for Arenado. Righthander Dakota Hudson led the league with a 56.9% groundball rate and posted a 3.35 ERA as a rookie last season. A true groundball pitcher is even more important when the ball carries as much as it does at Coors Field. Either way, it’s much more likely than it was a year ago that Arenado and his low-key persona will be in another uniform this season.

Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs

The Cubs are in a weird place, reportedly making available a key piece of their championship core in Kris Bryant to press reset on the current roster. As of now, the former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP has two years left before he hits free agency. He, the Cubs and his potential suitors are awaiting the decision for the grievance case he filed against Chicago for manipulating his service time in April 2015. In the unlikely scenario that Bryant wins his case, he’ll become a free agent following this season instead of after the 2021 campaign.

One year makes a big difference when it comes to Bryant’s trade availability. The Cubs are no longer the juggernaut they were a few years ago, but they still have enough talent on their roster to make a postseason run in 2020 if they keep Bryant. Trading him makes sense for the Cubs only if they get a few top prospects in return.

But that’s also why it makes sense for the Cubs to trade Bryant this winter if the arbiter rules in their favor. If that’s the case, Bryant would hit free agency the same offseason that Arenado does, so long as the Rockies third baseman exercises his opt-out clause. Bryant is more affordable right now and is a better offensive player than Arenado (136 OPS+ to Arenado’s 122), while Arenado’s defense at third is unparalleled. Considering Bryant’s positional flexibility (he also plays first base, leftfield and rightfield), the Dodgers are a really good fit for Bryant. They showed interest in both Donaldson and Arenado, as well as Anthony Rendon before he signed with the Angels. The Rockies almost certainly won’t deal Arenado within their division, so Bryant is probably Los Angeles’s only remaining option to add a top third baseman. And the Dodgers definitely have the prospects to make a deal work with the Cubs.

Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians

The Donaldson deal impacts Lindor’s trade market mostly because it further separates the Twins and Indians in the AL Central. The Indians were already fielding offers for their superstar shortstop, and a stronger Minnesota team and the expected emergence of the White Sox could give them even more reason to trade him and restock their farm system.

It's worth noting that Indians president Chris Antonetti said last week he expects Lindor to be on Cleveland's roster opening day.