I’ll admit it. I was skeptical, too.
When Josh Donaldson’s season began, it was more bark than bite. The former MVP dished out re-tweetable quotes, arrived every day in style (he once came to the spring training facility with a backward Raiders cap and shades at 9 a.m.) and brought bravado the Braves hadn’t seen in some time.
Yet it didn’t result in numbers. Donaldson was underwhelming, leaving many to question why the Braves made a $23 million investment. Through 66 games, Donaldson hit .235 with 10 homers and 28 RBIs. He was drawing walks and hitting the ball hard, but the tangible results weren’t there.
The money could’ve been spent on the bullpen, opined many among the Braves faithful despite overwhelming evidence addressing the bullpen in free agency wouldn’t have proved fruitful. Still, we were all guilty of some level of disappointment in Donaldson while acknowledging there was time to turn it around.
Once Donaldson got settled in — and fully healthy after a couple of seasons in which he was battling injuries more than off-speeds — he never slowed down. From June 15 through last weekend’s series in New York, Donaldson hit .296 with 14 doubles, 22 homers, 48 RBIs and a 1.067 OPS across 62 games.
Donaldson is a potent middle-of-the-order bat. He’s an experienced unconventional leader who marches to the beat of his own drum, which offers a unique aspect the clubhouse otherwise lacked. He’s a difference maker, perhaps to the point the Braves could win the National League. Make no mistake, they wouldn’t be in this position without their third baseman.
And Donaldson also is an impending free agent, set to enter the market again just before he turns 34 in December. Age be damned, the Braves should try to make Donaldson a fixture in their lineup for the remainder of his twilight years.
We’ll start from Donaldson’s perspective. He and Freddie Freeman make a nice 3-4 punch. They’re a pair of veterans pursuing the elusive ring. Donaldson has a meaningful relationship with general manager Alex Anthopoulos and obviously his Southern roots make the Braves an ideal match.
This will be his last payday, likely a two-or-three-year deal. Donaldson will be the second-best third baseman on the market, trailing Washington’s outstanding Anthony Rendon whose age (29) and performance (likely top 10 MVP finish) will net him a massive commitment.
Otherwise, Donaldson will be coveted. He admits he doesn’t like being a designated hitter, but given what his body’s experienced in recent years, there’s an argument for returning to the AL. On the other hand, Donaldson has provided gold glove-worthy defense. His phenomenal defensive play is now a sizable chunk of his value.
For the Braves, they’ll want to retain one of their most productive players as they enter 2020 with World Series aspirations. Donaldson departing is a blow however you slice it (unless they replaced him with Rendon, which should be filed under the same pie-in-the-sky category as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado last winter).
The Braves have slugging rookie Austin Riley, who profiles as a big bat with a hefty strikeout rate. He’s already shown the full extent of his good and bad. They love Riley and resisted the pursuit of a long-term third baseman while he was simmering in the minors.
But a World Series hopeful entering the year starting Riley — after a full season of Donaldson — would be risky. He’s not a sure thing. Riley handling left field and dabbling at third while the team is less dependent on him sounds more comforting. He’d also continue learning from Donaldson, with whom he’s developed a nice rapport (the two share an agent, which helps matters).
There will be money available, with Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel and Darren O’Day representing $45 million in freed-up dollars. There are also options (Tyler Flowers, Julio Teheran) and potential non-tenders that will open more room. So affording him won’t be an issue.
Now, it’s not as simple as we laid out. Donaldson will have alternatives, some of whom may be willing to price the Braves out. The Braves have Riley as leverage, at least providing them an internal backup plan should Donaldson depart.
The Braves will offer Donaldson the one-year qualifying offer, north of $18 million, that will net the Braves a draft pick should Donaldson decline. Considering he just made $23 million for a successful year, it makes little business sense to take the offer, even if his market isn’t robust.
He’ll have suitors. The Rangers are opening a new ballpark. The Angels are willing to spend to put a better team around Mike Trout. The Phillies and Nationals could need a third baseman, and the opportunity to swipe Donaldson from a rival could be appealing. Other fits will emerge.
It seems like the Braves and Donaldson could consummate a deal. Two months ago, I’d have told you they wouldn’t offer a third year. Now, with how successful the partnership’s been and Riley’s uncertainty, I’m not so sure.
The Braves have Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies signed well below market value. That spares them the constant thought of paying either a mega deal in his prime. It should also provide added comfort in spending, to a degree, though they’ll ask themselves where the Donaldson money could otherwise be dispersed.
Ideally, the Braves would bring him back on a two-year deal. Donaldson undoubtedly will try to secure that third season. I speculate a fair deal as two years, roughly $55 million under the Braves’ umbrella, and a three-year pact worth around $80 million from Donaldson’s perspective. It boils down to the third year and what the market dictates.
Maybe the third year becomes a breaking point, but an extra season wouldn’t doom the team financially. If I’m the Braves — and I certainly am not — I’d try to frontload the deal, since I have plenty of breathing room this winter and the AAV number on Donaldson in 2022 would be more aligned to his projected performance.
There’s another month to go before the postseason, and how Donaldson fares in October could swing this entire conversation. But as we sit here in late August, it’s evident he was well worth every dime of the Braves’ money.
Donaldson is an integral part of the best Braves team in … this millennium? At least since 2003. That’s a force worth retaining. The Braves would be wise to keep Donaldson back in those Southern roots.
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