Trade grades: Unexpected Minnesota Twins-New York Yankees deal brings Josh Donaldson to N.Y.

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Monday, March 14, 2022

The trade: The New York Yankees acquire 3B Josh Donaldson, IF Isiah Kiner-Falefa and C Ben Rortvedt from the Minnesota Twins for C Gary Sanchez and IF Gio Urshela.

Maybe Sunday's late-night trade between the Yankees and Twins isn't going to knock March Madness brackets and the return of Tom Brady from the front of the sports fan's mind, but it was a stunner and a headliner in its own right. And it was a bit of a head scratcher. Not in a "what the heck are these teams doing?" kind of way, but more in a "whoa, there's a lot going on there" kind of way.

There are a lot of moving parts to this deal and we will launch into sorting it out with the understanding that some of the context of this trade is probably yet to be revealed. However it shakes out, we can at least start with this: It's a good old-fashioned baseball trade, with two teams trying to improve themselves for the season to come and both moving quality veterans in a move that has numerous ramifications for the rosters of both teams.

Let's try to reason this thing out.

At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Gary Sanchez was hitting .283/.353/.567 after his age-24 season and averaging 48 homers and 121 RBI per 162 games played. He had a second-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year balloting, an All-Star appearance, a Silver Slugger award and even a few MVP votes.

Then it all went downhill, gradually, then really fast. In the aggregate, since 2017 Sanchez has hit .201/.299/.444 and has driven Yankees fans up a wall with his defensive shortcomings. Passed balls. Stolen bases. Wild pitches. At this point, it's probably better for everybody's peace of mind that Sanchez has finally moved on.

Still, someone has to catch and it's unclear how much of that question will be answered by the acquisition of Rortvedt, 23, a second-year catcher who has drawn raves for his defensive ability but at present doesn't look like a big-league regular at the plate. He hits from the left side so if New York sees enough potential in his bat, then maybe they see him as holding down the heavy part of a platoon with returnee Kyle Higashioka, a righty hitter.

Urshela was a journeyman who really found himself in pinstripes and became a popular figure at Yankee Stadium. However, after a career season at age 27 in 2019, his numbers have declined in each of the last two seasons. He's also not an ideal solution as an every-day defensive shortstop, which is what he was slated to be as the Yankees' depth chart stood before this trade.

In Kiner-Falefa, who was a Twin for all of one day after Minnesota traded for him on Saturday, the Yankees have a bona fide top defender to hold down shortstop for the next season or two until top prospects Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza take over the position. He's also a former Gold Glover at third base and even has some spot duty in the majors behind the plate.

Speaking of hitting, while Kiner-Falefa lacks Urshela's power, he has an even better ability to get the bat on the ball, a trait much needed in the Yankees' strikeout-heavy attack. He's not a likely candidate to take a power leap in New York as Urshela did as he simply doesn't hit the ball as hard. To wit: Of the 209 qualifying hitters in baseball last season, Kiner-Falefa's WOBA was in the 11th percentile when he hit the ball in the air, per TruMedia.

Kiner-Falefa also adds speed to the mix. He stole 20 bases last season, a total that would have led the Yankees. So while he lacks star potential because of his below-average power, Kiner-Falefa's durability and full package of skills is enough that of the players in this deal, his bWAR in 2021 (3.7) was the highest.

Then there is Donaldson, who brings elite power, a history of injuries, an intense personality and a fat contract with him to New York. At 36, he's the oldest player in the deal by more than a half decade. He'll earn $21.75 million in each of the next two seasons, per Cot's Contracts, and has a club option with a pricey buyout for 2024. Reports are that the Bombers will be on the hook for all of that contract.

Frankly, this feels like the kind of thing the Yankees would have done in 1984, when if an aging, overpriced slugger was there to be had, you always knew New York would be the first in line to grab him. However, Donaldson adds even more power to the New York lineup and, given the trajectory of Sanchez's career, even at 36, Donaldson seems to be a better bet to actually deliver on his power potential. And he'll do so with fewer strikeouts and a lot more walks.

If the Yankees can make the catcher position work, they are deeper and more flexible with this dual acquisition. They have more speed and better defense. For most teams, Donaldson's contract would be a concern, but we're not going to sweat the Yankees' payroll. This deal might not have improved the Yankees' bottom-line projection all that much, if at all, but I do think they have a more flexible and balanced roster, even if it remains too heavy on righty hitters.

And no longer will the Yankees and their fans have to deal with the howls to get Sanchez out of town. No, now they just deal with having Donaldson and Gerrit Cole in the same clubhouse.

Yankees grade: B

For all of the attention the Yankees get, the bulk of my back-and-forth with colleagues about this deal was about the Twins. What are they trying to do? Also: What comes next? It's that last question that may be the most interesting of all and we can't answer it yet, or even know for sure it's one we are right to ask.

Minnesota has been one of MLB's most active teams since the lockout ended. It began with Saturday's trade with Texas that sent catcher Mitch Garver to Texas for Kiner-Falefa and a prospect. Then, early Sunday, the Twins landed a rotation anchor in Sonny Gray from the Reds for two prospects, including 18-year-old fireballer Chase Petty. And now this. Twins GM Derek Falvey is apparently trying to wrest the title way from Seattle's Jerry DiPito as baseball's most-frenzied executive.

There may be more to come. Minnesota could try to flip Sanchez, who is entering his last year before free agency. But they could well keep him as well. The Twins have young Ryan Jeffers behind the plate and he could be the primary backstop, while Sanchez spells him and also gets time at DH -- which may actually be his best position. Either way, Minnesota now needs to add depth at the position after Garver and Rortvedt's departures.

The Twins' near-term infield puzzle looks quite a bit more complicated now than it did before the deal, but not necessarily in a bad way. While Donaldson's contract was a big one, moving him doesn't mean the Twins have reversed course on their attempt to bounce back quickly from their disappointing 2021 season. We know this because the deal to move Petty for the veteran Gray signifies a team that is pushing to win now. So how does this infield shake-up further that cause?

We'll see.

Kiner-Falefa appeared to slot in nicely as the Twins' every-day shortstop. Now he appears to slot in nicely as the Yankees' every-day shortstop. Meanwhile, Minnesota's previous need for a starting shortstop is once again a need. Urshela can assume Donaldson's spot at third base, though perhaps the Twins see him as the potential shortstop. Which is fine but then you need a third baseman.

Let's not forget about Jorge Polanco, who hit 33 homers last season playing mostly at second base, but also put in 26 starts at shortstop, where he has a consistent track record of poor defensive metrics. He's played a bit of third base (nine starts) but hasn't played the hot corner in six years. Finally, there is bat-on-ball stud Luis Arraez, who plays all over, but can play second or third.

On top of all that, the Twins' have three near-ready prospects who have played the infield in Austin Martin, Royce Lewis and Jose Miranda. Martin fielded under .900 as a shortstop in Double-A last season so he either needs a lot more work or is on his way to center field, where he played about half the time in 2021.

Lewis has missed the last two seasons with injury, so while the Twins might fast-track him if he impresses, they aren't going to put any undue pressure on him. Meanwhile, Miranda is of an age to break into the majors (he turns 24 this season) and he hit .343/.397/.563 in 80 games after being promoted to Triple-A St. Paul in 2021. Perennial infield prospect Nick Gordon is still around as well.

Then there is one other path to consider. In moving Donaldson, the Twins have an exceptionally clean payroll situation, both this season and, especially, beyond. And you may have noticed that there are some really good free agent infielders still hunting for a new team. Just saying.

The eventual shape of the Twins' roster for 2022 in not entirely clear. But moving Donaldson gives them a number of different pathways to follow, and they all rate somewhere between interesting and exciting.

Twins grade: B+