The Braves know all this. They've said in no uncertain terms they want to keep Donaldson if at all possible. The questions, then: Is it possible and, if so, is it advisable?
Without being given access to Liberty Media’s spreadsheets, we’re only guessing. But the Braves did save $11 million in declining Julio Teheran’s option — though they might re-sign him for less — and they remain solvent after a season that saw them pay the Donaldson $23 million. If that didn’t break the bank, then $2 million more over the next three seasons wouldn’t. What we can’t know is if $75 million over three seasons will be enough What if some team gives him $90 million over four? That’d be an AAV of $22.5 million. What then?
Then the Braves might well punt. There’s a major difference between paying an everyday player $22.5 million at 34 and the same again at 37. Before Mike Trout came along, Albert Pujols was the best non-pitcher of this century. His WAR value at 35 was 4.0 — not nearly his peak, but still good. His WAR at 37 was minus-1.9. Miguel Cabrera, who won a Triple Crown at 28, had a 4.7 WAR season at 33; he has an aggregate WAR of minus-0.1 over the three years since.
As much as the Braves love Donaldson now, they can’t be blind to reality: Even great hitters eventually stop being great. Chipper Jones won a batting title at 36 and played at a productive level until he was 40, but there aren’t many Chippers — and he logged more than 135 games only once over his final nine seasons. For Donaldson, three years at $25 million each would be worth doing. Unless you’re prepared to write off another $20-plus million as the cost of doing business, anything more would not.
As Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors notes, Donaldson is an elite hitter. Going by Statcast, he ranked seventh among big-leaguers in average exit velocity, 11th in hard-hit balls. He was 17th in "barrels" — meaning hitting the ball squarely – per plate appearance. He was ninth in walk percentage. Most advanced analytics support paying him $25 million next season, and maybe the next. Beyond that is where it gets problematic.
Donaldson appeared to like being a Brave as much as they liked having him. The Braves head into free agency believing that gives them an edge if the dollars offered elsewhere are more-or-less equal. If he stays here, he has reason to believe he’ll be playing meaningful baseball for the duration of his contract. Not to pick on the Rangers, but they haven’t finished above .500 since 2016.
The Braves would leap at the chance to keep Donaldson on a two-year deal, even if the two years turn out to be slightly above an AAV of $23 million. They’d have to think hard about $75 mil over three, but they’d probably do it.
They know Donaldson will get offers from elsewhere. They also expect to be allowed to make a counteroffer. They’re surely hoping nobody else offers a fourth year — because then they’d have to think even harder. And their final answer might be, “We’re sorry, but we just can’t.”