The Braves did well to sign third baseman Josh Donaldson, the 2015 AL MVP with the Blue Jays. No matter how it turns out, that’s the bottom line, and there’s a decent chance it works out great.
But Donaldson wouldn’t be joining the Braves if he were still playing like an MVP. He would have commanded a rich, multi-year deal, and the Braves aren’t doing those. Donaldson settled on a one-year contract for $23 million, same as last offseason, because the market has doubts about his ability to regain and maintain his previous form.
The Braves introduced Donaldson on Tuesday. The mood was appropriately celebratory — again, this was a good get for the Braves — yet the question of Donaldson’s health hung over the event.
“I still feel like I’m that same kind of player,” he said. “But I’m not really concerned about anything else for today. I’m focused on being the best that I can for this organization.”
How good can Donaldson be for the Braves? The question would be easier to answer if not for his recent history of calf injuries. Donaldson played 114 games in 2017 and just 52 in 2018.
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The Braves have a capable third baseman on the roster, Johan Camargo. They’d still be a pretty good ball club if Donaldson doesn’t play a lot of games. It’s just that they’d essentially be the same team, and with less (no?) money to spend on getting better.
That’s not likely to be good enough to get where they want to go. I never discounted the Braves winning the NL East this year because they were ahead of schedule and fun to watch. But the reality is that the Nationals never got started, and the Phillies faded at the end.
The Braves faded, too, in large part because their offense dwindled during the second half and continuing to the NLDS. GM Alex Anthopoulos said second baseman Ozzie Albies told him he wore down in the second half. Adding Donaldson gives manager Brian Snitker depth and flexibility to use Camargo in a utility role to spell Albies and other regulars.
That’s a solid plan, but it only works if Donaldson is available to play. He’s the element holding the design together. And Donaldson’s injuries are a real issue, along with his age (he turns 33 next month).
It’s possible Donaldson could play a lot of games in 2018 and still decline. He’s is starting from a high peak , so he’d still be a good player. Yet the Braves need more than that to get where they want to go in 2019.
Of the rebuild, Anthopoulos said: “That’s over now.” That’s no bold statement for the GM of the reigning NL East champs but, remember, less than a year ago the timeline looked longer.
“It’s about going forward,” Anthopoulos said. “We have the resources to do that, to spend dollars and add pieces. We’ve got the young talent. It’s on us (the front office) to do our job. Then it’s on the players to July. Then it’s back on us again.”
The expectation now is to compete for division titles, and the goal is to win the World Series. The Braves did the former in 2018 but couldn’t match the Dodgers’ position-player depth. If the Braves get pre-2018 version of Donaldson — he was really good for those 113 games in 2017 — it will alleviate that weakness.
Donaldson was great from 2013, his first full season in the big leagues, through 2017. His post-trade stint with Cleveland in September suggested he can reach those levels again. Over those 16 games (60 plate appearances) Donaldson hit .280 with a .400 on-base percentage and three home runs.
You might call it a fluke for most players, but Donaldson has a track record of fantastic production.
“It looked like the Josh we’ve always known, one of the best players in game,” Anthopoulos said.
To keep it that way, Anthopoulos said the Braves would “be smart” about Donaldson’s playing time. Both GM and player cited faith in the Braves training staff, which includes George C. Poulis, who was with Anthopoulos and Donaldson in Toronto. Donaldson said he has a better understanding of his body’s weak spots and is working on addressing them this offseason.
The Braves aren’t done after adding Donaldson. They still need a right fielder (Nick Markakis remains an option). Anthopoulos said he still wants to fortify the bench. A starting pitcher and a reliever also are on his list.
But, the GM added: “Josh was a key piece, one that takes up a big hunk of dollars for the offseason.”
Unlike the Dodgers, the Braves can’t just outspend their mistakes. They need Donaldson, their big-money player, in the lineup and producing like his history says he can. So far Anthopoulos hasn’t used much of what he calls his “prospect capital” to add pieces, and even with the accelerated timeline I think that’s the right approach.
Adding Donaldson does nothing to hurt that plan. If he’s hurt, the Braves will be OK and Donaldson will be gone. If he Donaldson returns to greatness, he is in line for a big payday next winter, or the Braves could retain him with a reasonable qualifying offer (they’d get draft-pick compensation if he leaves).
If Donaldson is right and he’s still the same kind of ballplayer, then the Braves would have a good shot at winning the division again and a better chance in the postseason. The chance that Donaldson isn’t the same player is why the Braves could sign him. It’s worth the risk, but the post-rebuild Braves need it to work.