There’s a scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, a delusional narcissist orchestrating his own lawless empire, carelessly tosses cash off a yacht. He refers to the excess paper as “fun coupons.”
Apparently MLB teams ran out of fun coupons. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unemployed as the days dwindle until spring training. The idea of lengthy contracts makes GMs gasp. The expensive deals are OK if they’re short.
It’s all about value, whereas other sports prioritize just having good players. That’s become the MLB way, just as overpaying quarterbacks and freeing up max cap space dominate football and basketball.
But let’s stop short of totally criticizing the Braves, who’ve endured their share of vocal blows for much of winter. They cashed in their coupons early and, as a result, appear quiet during a semi-waiting period.
Before we knew the stagnant market was stagnant (again), and organizations weren’t compelled to do longer commitments (which creates quite a discussion for the next CBA) the Braves jumped in front of the curve.
They scooped up Josh Donaldson, a former MVP whose age (33) didn’t dictate a scary long-term deal. It was a safe play in which general manager Alex Anthopoulos improved his lineup, depth and clubhouse in one swoop without reorienting the landscape of his plan.
Anthopoulos doesn’t totally know what he has. He has Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman, among a catalog of young players who haven’t defined themselves. In the Braves’ case, I’m not sure distributing long-term deals was the play. Figure out what’s here - and despite last season’s success, there are plenty of questions - and then sure, spend stupidly (as some franchises might say) if you please.
That reality, whether you agree, made Donaldson the ideal signing. Quite frankly, we’re overlooking how good this guy is. Yes, the injuries are concern and worthy of a red-flag distinction. In 2017, Donaldson hit the disabled list for the first time in his career. He grew accustomed to it: After a 113-game season, his 2018 became a throwaway with 52 games. He’s had calf and shoulder issues. He and the Braves insist he’s healthy; we’ll take them at their word.
And if that word is true, he could transform the lineup and help anchor a group with the potential to be the National League’s best. You’ll find few who don’t see a healthy Donaldson as a top-eight, maybe top-five third baseman. He adds elite power to the 2-hole, a pedigree no one else on the team has and if he can even give 120-130 games, is the level of player who can shift a pennant race.
Before last season, which could just as easily be chalked up as an injury-ridden fluke than a decline, Donaldson hit .282/.377/.524 with 164 homers from 2013-17. He finished in the top eight of MVP voting four times, including winning it in 2015.
His addition gives the Braves three hitters who, when hot, can be the best hitter in the game during any series. I like what the Phillies, Nationals and Mets are doing, but none of them can make that claim. Maybe Harper swings that.
Donaldson had plenty of interest. The Cardinals, as well-respected as it gets and aiming for their own playoff rejuvenation, wanted to plug him into the lineup. The Braves had an advantage given Donaldson’s roots, fondness for the South and Anthopoulos ties, but obviously $23 million doesn’t hurt either.
Here’s the point: The Braves added a coveted high-level player early in the offseason, but because it didn’t happen today or at the winter meetings, they’re getting blasted for negligence. Donaldson might’ve been their biggest move, but is that really the worst thing? Unless you were living in Harper-Machado dream land, a short-term deal with Donaldson is about best case (trades are a different story, but it takes two to tango; it’s difficult to fault the Braves for not doing a notable trade given the likelihood teams are trying to take advantage of their prospect wealth).
As soon as the Braves address their outfield or add a starter, all of a sudden, the offseason goes from dull to successful. That’s just the nature of sports, right?
I’ll check out with thoughts from David Ross, a beloved former Brave, critical piece of the Cubs’ legendary championship and dancing connoisseur. Ross, an Auburn product who’s tight with Brian McCann, got to know Donaldson at the Georgia-Auburn game last year when they were honored on the field.
“He’s going to be a big pickup for them,” Ross said in a recent interview provided to the AJC by Katherine Wright of the Orlando Sentinel. “Should be a nice addition, middle of the lineup guy. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best hitters in the game, former MVP. Going to bring a lot of clout to a young team, a team that got a little taste of the playoffs and winning their division last year. They’re looking to take it to the next level so a lot of familiar faces over there. I love that organization. Brian Snitker was my third base coach when I played there, and I love Snit and root for that team."
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