Braves aren’t World Series contenders without Donaldson and there’s no easy fix

10/10/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia --Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos answers questions during a presser a day following the Atlanta Braves loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, Thursday, October 10, 2019.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

10/10/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia --Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos answers questions during a presser a day following the Atlanta Braves loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, Thursday, October 10, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Josh Donaldson won’t play for the Braves in 2020. The only good thing for the Braves is that he signed with Minnesota, not division-rival Washington. The Braves don’t have a team that can win the World Series without Donaldson and won’t unless they make a bold move. The problem is that won’t be easy.

Donaldson’s departure leaves a huge hole in middle their lineup. He was no worse than their second-best position player in 2019. He’s a fine defender at the hot corner. They Braves lost a key ingredient to that mysterious mix known as clubhouse chemistry.

The Braves improved their pitching before Christmas, but that only made them good. They needed one more big deal to be great. Re-signing Donaldson was the simplest way to do it. Do that, and the franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 2001 would be a true contender to win it all.

Instead, the Braves balked at spending big on Donaldson. The Twins will pay him $92 million over four years. Add the $8 million buyout, and Donaldson’s Twins contract is guaranteed for $100 million. There’s a club option for $16 million in 2024.

The Braves can offer reasons why they didn’t match that deal. Donaldson is 34 years old. The 155 games he played in 2019 were his most since 2016. Donaldson was resurgent in 2019, but there’s a chance he will decline while still making big money.

The Braves didn’t want to take on that risk. Fine. So now what? There are no appetizing options for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to acquire a player at least as good as Donaldson.

Trading for star third basemen Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant is riskier than giving Donaldson a long-term deal. Donaldson got a lot of cash. Arenando or Bryant would cost the Braves significant money plus one of their top prospects for what could be a short-term union.

Arenado, 28, is owed $70 million over the next two seasons and can opt out of his deal after that. If he doesn’t, his team is on the hook for $164 million over the next five seasons. That would be a total of $234 million over seven seasons. A contract like that is not the Braves Way.

Bryant, 28, is a bargain at $18.6 million in 2020. But he has a service-time manipulation grievance pending. Win it, and he can be a free agent after the 2020 season. Lose, and that can’t happen until after the 2021 season.

Bryant or Arenado would cost Anthopoulos a coveted asset: an exceptional prospect with six years of team control at below-market salary. The GM built a two-time East champion without surrendering a top talent from the fine farm system he inherited. Giving up one now for an expensive player with short-term control would be a panic move.

Standing pat at third base also is an unattractive scenario. Austin Riley and Johan Camargo are a massive drop-off from Donaldson. AJC beat writer Gabe Burns reports that the Braves are expected to seek an outfielder. That position group needed help no matter what happened with Donaldson.

Outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos are on the market. Either would be an upgrade for the Braves. Neither has ever produced at the plate like Donaldson and aren’t likely to in the future. A long-term deal for an outfielder also would mean one less slot on the big-league club for top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters.

You see the quandary for Anthopoulos. The GM has assembled a deep bullpen, but the Braves won’t have many leads to protect if they can’t score. Veteran addition Cole Hamels will help the rotation, but the talented young starters need all runs they can get as they work through inconsistent outings.

The Braves could have avoided those issues by paying market rate for Donaldson. They’d already committed $46 million in combined 2020 salaries for Hamels, catcher Travis d’Arnaud and relievers Will Smith and Chris Martin. The $23 million the Braves gave Donaldson for 2019 is the most they ever gave a player for one season. Their payroll for 2019 was the highest in franchise history.

The Braves will say those things are evidence they are spending big on player payroll as they collect big profits from their taxpayer-subsidized stadium. I say they are moving the goalposts on their promises. Whatever your view, the fact is the Braves are projected to open this season with a payroll ($132 million) that is $12 million less than the end of last season.

Anthopoulos said that $144 million figure exceeded their budget. Are the Braves really willing to go significantly above that amount this year? Would they do it if it means taking on a big salary for the long term?

Anthopoulos pulled off a coup when he got Donaldson on a one-year deal. But Donaldson was willing to take it so he could make good for a bigger deal later. He got that from the Twins. Now the Braves have a much worse lineup than the team that couldn’t get out of the 2019 divisional round.

Baseball is a strange game. Maybe the Braves are good enough to go further this season. I’ve underestimated them before. But the Braves as currently constructed don’t look World Series-worthy, and Anthopoulos doesn’t have any good way to change that.

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