The obvious one is to re-sign free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson. He was no worse than the second-best Braves position player in 2019. The Braves want Donaldson back, but the Nationals reportedly are in hot pursuit. If they get him, the balance of power in the NL East would shift to the Nationals.
The Nats already re-signed staff ace Stephen Strasburg, the World Series MVP. But their outlook is murky because Anthony Rendon, the NL’s best third baseman, left to sign with the Angels. That hurt the Nats and helped the Braves. Signing Donaldson as a replacement would reverse that calculation.
If it comes down to money, which it almost always does, then the Nationals have the edge over the Braves. Their projected payroll for 2020 is $172.3 million, seventh-highest in MLB. But they reportedly still were in the running for Rendon, who got $245 million over seven years from the Angels. The Nats are committed to defending their World Series title.
Meanwhile, the Braves have $101 million in guaranteed contacts for 2020. Add the arbitration estimates compiled by Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors, and the 2020 Braves payroll stands at about $130 million. Add a salary of, say, $25 million for Donaldson in 2020 and the Braves would be spending $155 million on payroll in 2020.
A $155 million Braves payroll would be $11 million more than the end of 2019, which the team said exceeded its budget. It’s a spending stratosphere the Braves have never approached. Maybe the Braves’ corporate owner will surprise us and put more of its taxpayer-subsidized profits into player payroll. It just would be a break from the norm.
If LM doesn’t splurge, then the Braves won’t be as good without Donaldson unless they make some other big move(s). Their fortunes would be even dimmer if the Nats nab Donaldson. Spending big on one player doesn’t always put a team over the top, but it might be the case now for the Braves.
Of course, the Braves could “spend” on the trade market. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor are reportedly available. Bryant is a better hitter than Donaldson and Lindor is roughly equal. Both players are much younger than Donaldson, 34.
But Braves AJC beat writer Gabe Burns put Bryant and Lindor in the category of wishful thinking. The Braves would have to surrender one of their top prospects for a player with two years of team control (or one for Bryant if he wins his service-time grievance). Signing Donaldson, even if it takes a four-year contract, might be less risky.
Bringing back Donaldson is the most straightforward way for the Braves to improve their chances in 2020. Right now, Austin Riley and Johan Camargo would replace him at third base. That’s a huge drop-off in production unless one of those players makes a huge leap in 2020.
A Braves lineup without Donaldson or Bryant still figures to be good because it includes Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. FanGraphs projects a combined 12.7 Wins Above Replacement for those three. In the NL, only the Dodgers have a better projected top three (combined 13.5 WAR for Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Justin Turner). The Cubs have the NL’s third-best trio in projected WAR (11.5) with Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez.
But replace Donaldson with Camargo/Riley, and lineup depth becomes a problem. In that scenario, Dansby Swanson’s projected 1.8 WAR would be fourth-best among lineup regulars. The Dodgers have four position players with better WAR projections than Swanson behind their top three. The Cardinals and Nationals each have three and the Cubs have two.
As it stands, the Braves’ lineup for 2020 looks too short to be a true World Series contender. That would offset the gains made by building up the bullpen, improving the catching tandem and adding a solid starting pitcher. The Braves will be good if they don’t re-sign Donaldson or add a comparable replacement. I doubt they’d be good enough to win the World Series, especially if the Nats sign Donaldson.