On the one hand, the Braves just signed an MVP to play third base. On the other, Josh Donaldson won the American League’s top award in 2015. The Braves are about to sign him to play for them in 2019, and they will pay him $23 million to do it. That’s more than Freddie Freeman will make next season.
In good health, Donaldson is among baseball’s very best players. He hasn’t been healthy since 2016. He worked only 52 games for Toronto and Cleveland last season, and his two months with the Indians will be remembered for … well, nothing. He started the three games of the ALDS against Houston; he went 1-for-12 and his team got swept.
It’s hard to make the case that paying one guy $23 mil is bargain shopping. Still, spending big for one free agent means Alex Anthopoulos has again kept his prospect powder dry. He hasn’t traded Kolby Allard or Luiz Gohara or Austin Riley or anybody. The Braves have given themselves a talent infusion without sacrificing one iota of talent. As much as $23 million is, it’s only money.
The risk here is obvious: Donaldson mightn’t have much left. He turns 33 on Dec. 8. To Anthopoulos’ credit, he didn’t buy long-term. If the Donaldson of 2019 isn’t anywhere close to the Donaldson of old, no lasting financial harm will have been done. The mistake teams make – although fewer teams are making it now – is buying a guy for what he has already done, not for what he’s apt to do for you.
Albert Pujols is at once a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the poster child of bad contracts. In 11 years with the Cardinals, he had an aggregate WAR of 86.6, which would have gotten him to Cooperstown had he never taken another at-bat. In seven years since signing with the Angels, his WAR is 13.3 – and he’s still under contract for three seasons more at a cumulative $87 million. The Donaldson deal is the opposite of that, which tells us, not for the first time, that the Braves’ general manager knows what he’s doing.
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This marks the second time Anthopoulos has banked on Donaldson. When with Toronto, the GM traded four players to the A’s for the third baseman in November 2014. The Jays won the American League East the next season, Donaldson winning MVP. Anthopoulos resigned that fall due to front-office politics. (Baseball is a funny ol’ game.)
Back to Pujols. The lessons learned from his signing – for $254 million over 10 seasons – were what impelled another Braves GM not to re-up Brian McCann in the fall of 2013. After two guys named Jones, he’d been the Braves’ third-best position player of this century, but his position wasn’t one that sees many players age gracefully. McCann was a catcher about to turn 30. Frank Wren knew other teams would offer more than the Braves were willing to pay, and sure enough the Yankees did.
McCann got $85 million over five years. The Yankees traded him to Houston after three seasons, and last year McCann was a part of that franchise’s World Series breakthrough. This year he was a much lesser part. He played only 63 games. He hit .212, and this is a guy who hit .277 in his first tour as a Brave. He’s returning to offer cover for the loss of Kurt Suzuki, who signed with the hated Nationals last week, but over the past two years McCann (2.2 aggregate WAR) wasn’t nearly the player Suzuki (4.9 aggregate WAR) was.
The Braves have signed McCann for $83 million less than the Yankees paid, and for four fewer seasons. He’s 34, and he’s no longer an everyday catcher. If he can become the left-handed half of a platoon with Tyler Flowers, the Braves will be happy. They’ll still have to find their catcher of the future, but they should be able to make do in the interim. Again the disclaimer: This is a free-agent signing; no prospects were sacrificed in this transaction.
Are the Braves, with Donaldson and McCann on the roster, better than they were Sunday afternoon? In theory, yes. If Donaldson can be two-thirds of the player he was in 2015, the Braves have upgraded at third base, and they’ll have freed Johan Camargo to become their Ben Zobrist super-utility guy, which every good team needs. They still lack a right fielder – Camargo has spent one big-league inning as an outfielder – but a Nick Markakis short-term return isn’t out of the question.
I’m not one to go crazy on Clubhouse Guys – remember when Jonny Gomes was going to teach the Braves all about grit? – but the best clubhouses tend to have a blend of talent and seasoning, of young and old, of loud and soft. I can’t imagine the additions of Donaldson and McCann hurting anything. Besides, these are one-year deals. These aren’t lifetime commitments.
We mentioned earlier that the Braves were so gifted they didn’t need to shoot the lights out this offseason. Phillies owner John Middleton said this month this his club was ready to spend “stupid” money. The Braves haven’t done that. Donaldson and McCann are measured moves. They’re exactly the kind of deals Anthopoulos should be making. He’s a heck of a GM.