Alex Anthopoulos makes no bones about it: He wishes Josh Donaldson were still a Brave. In his first public comments since the third baseman signed -- for $92 million over four seasons -- with Minnesota, the Braves’ general manager conceded Wednesday that Donaldson’s exit marks a loss. That said, Anthopoulos also believes that, in refusing to meet the Twins’ price, he did what was best for the Braves. From our extended conversation:
Q: When we talked in late September, you were cautiously optimistic about re-signing Josh Donaldson. What happened?
A: He got a great contract with the Twins. We were given every opportunity to sign him. His agent was fantastic throughout the process. I’ve known Josh for years now, and he deserves this contract. I’m happy for him. Ultimately, we went as far as we thought made sense for us, and it was less than what the Twins offered. I don’t blame him for a minute. It’s a fantastic contract for him. He earned it. Would’ve loved to have him stay a Brave, but we ultimately had to make a decision. We felt like it was best for our club to go to a number and not go beyond that to get it done.
Q: With an asset you know you really want to keep, how tempting is it to say, “We’ll give him what he wants and worry about tomorrow later?”
A:There’s no doubt, especially when it’s someone you’re fond of and you know it’s one of the best players in the game – elite. And you know how much he meant to our team, our clubhouse. Everybody on the team wanted him back – the coaches, the players, we all wanted him back. Candidly, the contract went north of where we thought it would be at the start of the offseason. That’s to his credit. He’s been one of the best players in the game for a long time. We had to set a value internally for our team, our setup, our payroll, everything else. We stretched as far as we thought made sense for us. But that was still short of where the Twins were. I completely understood from his standpoint: That deal was way too good to turn down.
Q: For the record, did you offer a fourth year?
A: I’ve never gone into the specifics of what our offer was. Best way I can put it was, we made what we felt for us was a very meaningful offer, north of where we thought we would go at the start of the offseason.
Q: Donaldson said last week it wasn’t in “the same realm” as Minnesota’s. Is that true?
A: It all depends how you define it. At the end of the day, we did not match the Twins’ offer. We did not get to the number that the Twins did. How you want to define that, how much of a gap does there need to be? There’s no doubt the Twins had a better offer than we did on the table. We weren’t at those dollars. His agent was great with us. We stayed in contact the whole time. We were given every opportunity. I think Josh was sincere and wanted to be here. Josh gave us every opportunity to sign him back and every opportunity to get the deal done. Ultimately we had to make a tough decision. It was tough. We talked about it for a long time, and we knew that once we said we wouldn’t get to that level, we probably were not going to get the player back.
Q: How did that feel, knowing you would lose a player you really wanted?
A: Really wanted, really admire, someone who makes our team better. He’s a 6-win player – intense, gamer, durable. Again, one of the best players in the game. People talk about him having the second-highest WAR to Mike Trout over a certain number of years. So it’s tough. He earned it; he deserved it. Every club has its own parameters to work through. The fan base fell in love with him, rightfully so. The players fell in love with him. We kept that spot open all the way to the end, and we were hopeful and optimistic. It just got to a range that we weren’t comfortable for our scenario to get to that level. The one thing I can say is that I think Josh was very sincere about wanting to be back. … He loved it here and he wanted to be here. We had tremendous communication the whole time, and we were never kept in the dark. We knew what was going on at all times, even right up until the end. We were given every opportunity to sign him.
Q: He said that the Braves came in late. You just said you knew what was going on all the time.
A: I guess it all depends – what’s considered an offer, formal discussions and so on, without knowing exactly what the specifics are. I can tell you from our standpoint, we went as far as we were comfortable going and even beyond that. We were in the loop the whole time. … This just came down to a decision that we made, specifically myself as the leader of baseball operations, to not get to those dollars. We’ll find out over time, but we know full well that this was one of the best players in the game and it was going to be a big loss.
Q: As a GM, do you ever say, “I like him; everybody likes him. Let’s just do it”?
A: You’re always trying to manage short-term and long-term. I can say from a personal standpoint that Josh has done a lot for my career. The year I got him in Toronto, he won the MVP and took us back to the playoffs. We don’t win the division without him last year. I only have great things to say about him, and I owe a lot to him. Does it cross your mind to just say, “We’ll deal with it (later)?” Sure, it crosses your mind. But you know when you’re running a ballclub, you have to try to weigh short-term and long-term. You don’t know ultimately if you’re making the right decision. You’re taking the information you have at the time, and hopefully you’re getting more of these decisions right than wrong. I expect Josh Donaldson is one guy you’re never going to bet against. I expect him to be a great player and play for a long time. He takes tremendous care of himself. He works hard. But again, it’s about 25 guys.
Q: When you’re considering how many years to offer a player, you’re not just looking at next year’s payroll. You’re looking to 2022 or beyond, correct?
A: You have to project long-term. You’re trying to project performance. You’re trying to project payroll. We’re hopeful that our young players continue to play better and go through the process where we keep them and we keep adding to the team. The better the team is, the more expensive it’s likely going to get, just by going through arbitration and so on.
Q: So that’s something you bear in mind when you’re considering committing to a big contract long-term?
A: Sure. You’re always weighing that. You have to factor all those things in. Obviously (Austin) Riley and (Johan) Camargo were part of the discussion as well. That being said, Donaldson was definitely the priority. Our goal was to get him back. At the same time, we’re also weighing the possibility that we would be blocking Riley or blocking Camargo from playing third base. That presents its own challenges. We were willing to do it, up to a certain point. There comes a point where you feel like it doesn’t make sense for what your short- and long-term plans are. Make no mistake: This guy was one of the best players in the game, and I expect that to continue.
Q: His age (34) complicated this issue, did it not?
A: You look at it combined with everything else. You’re looking at the roster when you’re signing anybody to a long-term deal. We think the world of Josh Donaldson -- the work ethic, the trust. He’s had a long track record of being a great player. I think it’s a combination of projecting payrolls going forward and projecting what we believe Riley and Camargo can be. We’re hopeful some of our young players can continue to improve and get better. They start getting into the arbitration process and their salaries start to climb. We made what we felt was a meaningful offer for us. Again, he got a contract that was fantastic for him and his family. I don’t blame him. I think he had to take that deal. He’s joining a great ballclub that won 100 games in a great city. When you’re a great player, you’ve got a lot of good options. We knew it was going to be competitive.
Q: What was your reaction the night the news broke that he was signing with Minnesota?
A: I’d known a few days earlier it was headed that way. I didn’t know where, but a few days earlier I was aware he was getting close to making a decision. We had had communication. I knew where the contract was going to need to be for him to be a Brave. We had long internal discussions about it, and ultimately we decided we didn’t think it made sense to get to that level.
Q: When you found out where he was headed, did you feel a bit better that it wasn’t to the Nationals?
A: I’d say this. There were a lot of rumors about where he could go. I never want to see teams in our division get better. Josh Donaldson makes everybody better. From a selfish standpoint because I know how great a player he is, I’d rather he’s in the American League than the NL.
Coming this weekend: Anthopoulos on the Donaldson-less 2020 Braves.
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