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There’s no good Plan B if Josh Donaldson exits

Here's a by the numbers look at Josh Donaldson's 2019 season with the Braves.

For those denizens of Braves Country getting antsy over the time it’s taking Josh Donaldson to decide, we point to one word – “free.” As in “free agent.” That’s what he is. As such, he can do as he pleases. He doesn’t have to sign with anybody ever again. Though if he doesn’t, he’ll be passing up $100 million, give or take.

If reports are correct, the Braves have done the thing that they didn’t really want to do. They’ve offered Donaldson a fourth year. If nobody else offers a fifth — it’s hard to imagine anyone will, given that he’d be 39 when a five-year deal lapses – the best guess is that he’ll stay here. He loved his season as a Brave, and the feeling was mutual. The Braves have always felt good about their chances of retaining him, though with, ahem, a FREE agent, nobody knows anything for sure.

It’s believed that the Braves, Twins and Nationals — all of whom made the playoffs last year, one of whom won the World Series — have been Donaldson’s most ardent suitors. It’s now believed that the Twins won’t finish above third in the Bringer of Rain Sweepstakes. That leaves two teams from the National League East. The Nats made two smaller moves over the weekend — signing Starlin Castro and re-upping Asdrubel Cabrera, both infielders — and the immediate response was to view that as a #Natitude surrender re: Donaldson. It mightn’t have been.

Reports hold that Washington remains keen on Donaldson, that Castro is ticketed for second base, not third. As we know, the Nationals lost Anthony Rendon, the best third baseman in baseball, to the Angels. They managed to retain Stephen Strasburg. They’ll be good again. It isn’t as if Donaldson is picking from last-place teams.

Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported last week that Donaldson is waiting for some bidder to bump its offer to $110 million over four years. There’s a chance none will. That would be an average annual value of $27.5 million, which is a higher AAV than Bryce Harper accepted to sign with the Phillies. We note that Harper’s contract lasts for 13 years. We note also that Harper will be 38 when it lapses, the same age Donaldson would be at the end of a four-year deal.

Not to put too fine a decimal point on it, but $27.5 million is a lot of money. (So’s $25 mil, for that matter.) Rendon’s contract with the Angels carries an AAV of $35 million, but he’s 29 and coming off a career year that culminated in an improbable championship. Also: Rendon’s seven-year deal takes him to age 36, not 38.

The Braves might have to dig deep(er) and say, “Here’s your $110 million,” if for no other reason than to keep Donaldson from becoming a Nat. That would be a worst-case scenario: You lose the guy you felt you had to keep, and you lose him to your most hated rival. That also would leave the Braves staring at an Austin Riley/Johan Camargo spring playoff for the third-base job, which everybody in the organization would concede is a distant Plan B.

In 2018, the Braves had eight everyday players muster a WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference, of 2.0 or better. Last year only four everyday Braves did. They were the first four hitters in the lineup: Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Donaldson. They were, in the main, a good-hitting team — they finished third among NL clubs in runs and OPS — but they became a top-heavy team. Take away Donaldson and you’re down to three heavy hitters.

Yes, Riley has potential. Yes, Camargo was excellent for most of 2018 but got lost in 2019 after relegation to super-utility duty. Yes, Ender Inciarte has been an All-Star. Yes, Travis d’Arnaud should add some of the pop lost when Kurt Suzuki took his catching talents to D.C. But this batting order doesn’t hang together half as well without Donaldson as with him. Is that worth an extra $10 million?

The Braves didn’t load up on bullpen arms and spend $18 million for one year of Cole Hamels in the hope that they’ll be World Series champs in 2023. They’re looking to win it all — or at least win a postseason series — ASAP. Their one-year bet of $23 million on Donaldson enabled them to win 97 games, the best the Braves have done since 2003, but it also left them in a position where raising that bet more than fourfold is the only good option going forward.

To repeat myself: I believe the Braves will re-sign Donaldson. I believe this because there’s no real alternative. It would cost too much in prospects to pry Nolan Arenado from the Rockies. Until Kris Bryant’s MLB grievance is settled, any trade would leave his new team not knowing how much it will have to pay him, which is no way to do business.

There’s Donaldson, and then there’s a void. Another $10 million could render that void ... er, null and void. I’d do it, but it’s not my money.

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