There were those – that's my hand you see raised – who wondered if, with Austin Riley ready for the majors, the Braves needed to spend $23 million for Josh Donaldson's services. Today we wonder if the Braves' error was in signing Donaldson for only one year. That's how good the guy has been. (Which isn't to call him a has-been. He clearly is not.)
Donaldson has given the Braves their money’s worth, which with an outlay of $23 mil is saying something. He has become what general manager Alex Anthopoulos had in mind – a middle-of-the-order bat, a right-hander to complement the lefty Freddie Freeman. As of Friday, Donaldson led Freeman in WAR. The former was at 5.3, the latter at 4.4; since you asked, Ronald Acuna was at 5.0.
That’s correct. For their $23 million, the Braves bought a guy who has been their best position player. Given the talent on this roster, that’s saying something.
A team buying a free agent can expect to spend at least $7 million for 1.0 of WAR. Donaldson has cost $4.3 million per 1.0. (A steal!) He ranks among the National League’s top 10 in home runs, walks and on-base percentage. He’s 14th in slugging percentage. He’s tied for ninth in defensive runs saved. He’s sixth among NL position players in WAR.
This would be a career year for many guys, but such has been Donaldson’s career – consecutive seasons of a 7.5 WAR or better from 2013 through 2016 – that it can only be termed a rousing rebound for someone of his age. Which brings us to the point of this little exercise.
Donaldson will turn 34 in December. Baseball execs live by a new rule: You pay for what someone’s apt to do, not what he has done. That said, this one-year deal was Donaldson’s chance to prove he had something left. He proved it. He’s not taking a pay cut.
The Braves love him. He’s a pro’s pro. He also plays a position where, in Riley, the Braves have a younger and cheaper option. (Though Riley’s splash debut was diluted by a subsequent plunge. Since May, he has 36 hits against 69 strikeouts.)
At 33, Donaldson has been excellent. How much worse could he be at 34? How much worse would the 2019 Braves have been had Anthopoulos not spent that $23 million? How much worse might the 2020 Braves be if Donaldson leaves?
We’ll discuss this more in the weeks ahead. For today, we leave it at this: Donaldson has done everything he can to make the Braves want to keep him. Come November, we’ll see if they have the wherewithal -- figure at least $25 million per year, and he’ll surely want more than two years, but would you want to be paying any 36-year-old $25 million? -- to retain the bringer of rain.