The Braves want Donaldson back, but at what price?

Josh Donaldson appeared in 155 games with the Braves in 2019

The useful site MLB Trade Rumors lists Josh Donaldson as the fifth-best free agent available. (Behind Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler.) Spoiler alert: It also projects he'll sign with the Rangers for $75 million over three seasons.

That’s a lot for any team to spend on a player who’ll turn 34 in December. It’s more than the Braves would want to pay. (They bought eight years of Ronald Acuna’s services for $100 million, though we note that Acuna was light years from free agency and had no leverage apart from being the game’s best young player.) But is Donaldson among those rare cases where need impels a frugal club to say, “Heck with it. He’s worth it. Here’s $75 mil.”?

The argument against paying that much is that Donaldson probably won’t be as good in Year 2 of this contract (to say nothing of Year 3) as in the season just completed. Not saying that the “Bringer of Rain” will take his last big deal and be content to run out the clock. The Braves want him back in large part because they know he’s not that kind of guy. He’s a hard nose. He’s something of an inspiration. Statcast doesn’t measure such ephemeral qualities, and I’m always leery of those good-in-the-clubhouse guys, but Donaldson has a history of being good on the field, too.

And it’s not ancient history. He just led a team that won 97 games — a team with Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Mike Soroka — in Baseball-Reference WAR. This wasn’t lightning caught in a bottle, either. For Donaldson, it was the fifth-best season, WAR-wise, of a nine-year career. We tend to forget how good he was with the A’s and the Blue Jays. The reason Alex Anthopoulos paid $23 million — going by average annual value, it was the most the Braves have paid anyone — for one year of Donaldson was because this general manager was the GM who’d brought him from Oakland to Toronto. Anthopoulos knew darn well what Donaldson could do.

Had Anthopoulos not spent that $23 million, the Braves wouldn’t have finished first. Donaldson fortified an already-strong offense to the extent it could override a downturn in pitching. He was the Braves’ MVP. Remove him from the mix, and the Braves aren’t as good. Remove him, and Austin Riley might be needed to play third base, which means he couldn’t be part of a left-field platoon with Nick Markakis, which means the Braves’ outfield could be reduced to Acuna and not much else.

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.”

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