We know now Josh Donaldson’s price range. Anthony Rendon just signed with the Angels for an average annual value of $35 million over seven years. Mike Moustakas signed with the Reds for an AAV of $16 value over four seasons. Donaldson’s target figure is somewhere in between, though closer to Rendon’s than Moustakas’.
These are the three best third basemen of this free agent class. Rendon is 29, an MVP-caliber player in his prime. Moustakas is 31, three times an All-Star. Donaldson turned 34 last week; he’s a former MVP who isn’t quite as good as Rendon but is rather better than Moustakas. The Atlanta Braves spent $23 million for one year of Donaldson’s services; they’d like to keep him a while longer.
This is exactly how the Braves expected Donaldson’s offseason to play out. They knew he’d decline their qualifying offer. They encouraged him to look around and see what’s out there. He’d been waiting for this last big payday, and he was willing to take the Braves’ one-year deal to prove to the baseball world that he’s still a big deal. He proved that. He had a 6.1 WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference. Rendon had a 6.3, Moustakas a 3.2.
There’s no way a 34-year old gets a seven-year deal. Still, the Moustakas contract had to resonate with Donaldson. Not the dollar amount – he’ll want more than $16 mil per annum – but the length. If he’s worth that sort of commitment, Donaldson is surely thinking, so am I.
Donaldson was well worth his $23 million last season. Would he be worth $23 million times four – $92 million? That’s a lot for anybody, especially for someone who’ll be 37 when the fourth season begins. Would he be willing to take more money – say $25 million over three years – for a little less long-term security?
These are the questions Alex Anthopoulos has been asking for three months. The Braves believe Donaldson, in a perfect world, wants to remain a Brave. That was the advantage of having him for one year. “He got to see our house,” Anthopoulos said, and that’s not an incidental consideration. (Neither is his relationship with this general manage, who has hired him twice.) If the money is comparable, why mess with happy? If he stays here, he’ll bat behind Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman. That’s a hitter’s dream.
The Braves’ fear has long been that some club will throw stupid money at Donaldson – more than $92 million over four years. MLB Trade Rumors projected Donaldson would sign with the Rangers for $75 million over three seasons. The guess here is that the Braves would happily match that. A fourth year, however, might be a bridge too far.
MLB Trade Rumors ranked Donaldson the fifth-best free agent of 2019. The other four – Garrit Cole and Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler – have signed. The Bringer of Rain is now on the clock. He sees what Rendon got. He saw what Moustakas, always considered the third choice among third basemen, banked from Cincinnati. A lot of big-name teams want Donaldson very much, and when the big spenders get involved, markets can go ka-blooey.
To the Braves, Donaldson isn’t a luxury item. He’s a big-time player they absolutely need. If he signs elsewhere, they’ve lost their middle-of-the-order hitter. They’ve lost their third baseman. (Leaders in the clubhouse to replace him: Johan Camargo, coming off an awful year, and Austin Riley, who hit everything for a month and nothing thereafter.) They’d still be a good team. They mightn’t be a team capable of winning the World Series.
There’s been chatter about the Braves swinging a deal for Kris Bryant, another former MVP. That would likely cost them Max Fried, whom nobody wants to lose, and Bryant could – between arbitration and a grievance filed against MLB regarding its start-the-clock silliness on top prospects – could make as much as $45 million over the next two seasons. Then he’d be a free agent.
Bryant is an option, but he has always seemed a distant Plan B. The Braves would be loath to sacrifice Fried for someone under team control only through 2021. On the plus side, Bryant is a proven MOTO hitter, and he’s 27. He’d fit. He just wouldn’t fit as snugly as Donaldson.
We’ve said it before. Here it is again: For all the Braves have done – and they’ve done much – their winter’s work will hinge on what Donaldson does. He’s wanted. He’s needed. And, with all the pertinent information he should need, he should decide soon.