Braves preview: Josh Donaldson joins the infield

Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Friday, with their first workout scheduled for Saturday. The rest of team has until Wednesday to report, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for the next day. This is the third of a five-part series this week previewing the 2019 season.

The Braves were set in the infield until they weren’t. Johan Camargo was the every-day third baseman until he wasn’t. Josh Donaldson wasn’t an option until he was.

Such is life. Not even a month after publicly endorsing his infield, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his biggest bet of the offseason, securing Donaldson ahead of the market for $23 million and inserting him at third base.

It was a two-pronged decision. Aside from the theoretical benefit of Donaldson’s offense, it turned Camargo into the Braves’ renaissance man. He’ll play whenever and wherever while Donaldson handles the daily grind at third.

The story of the infield, and perhaps the team’s season, will be how Donaldson rebounds from an injury-plagued 2018. There was a point last season he couldn’t throw the ball from third to first. Even if he’s healthy now, and both parties insist that’s the case (he played well in a 16-game sample size with the Indians) – we’ve yet to see him over a longer course.

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Donaldson and Anthopoulos took a dual-gamble. The Braves will face immense criticism if Donaldson underwhelms. He was their high-priced acquisition in a winter they hyped for years. Donaldson, meanwhile, needs to produce for another substantial payday, be that in Atlanta or elsewhere. He’ll be 34 next December and we’re seeing how the market is treating older (or rather, all) free agents.

Aside from Donaldson, the Braves return last season’s infield. Freddie Freeman will be the offensive centerpiece as usual. Ozzie Albies will be a potential highlight every at-bat, though he has to prove he’s more first half than second half of last year. Dansby Swanson enters a do-or-die year offensively.

More on Albies: He scotched the earth in April and maintained enough production to earn All-Star honors in his first full season. The Braves do not win the National League East last season without his early postings. He hit .281 with 20 homers, 55 RBIs and 74 runs.

The second half left plenty of the table. Albies admitted fatigue played a role, and his dynamic gappers and base running became harder occasions to find among scattered pop-ups. His production dropped to .226 with four homers, 17 RBIs and 31 runs. Perhaps refreshed and prepared, Albies needs to show more of the former than latter.

Swanson will take it easy through spring training as he recovers from wrist surgery. Since an illustrious 38-game start in 2016, Swanson’s hit .235/.308/.359. While his defense has become outstanding, the bat hasn’t shown growth. After hitting .287 in 26 games across April and May, he didn’t have another month above .253. 

If Swanson’s struggles persist, perhaps the Braves opt for Camargo on a more regular basis. Shortstop is his natural position and he could provide more punch if the offense was lacking. But Swanson’s defense still makes him a valuable player; the offense determines his ceiling.

Defense was a focal point for the 2018 Braves. Freeman finally got his gold glove. Albies’ speed is an asset at second. Camargo isn’t as consistent but can make the spectacular play. Swanson is the best of the crop.

It’s safe the say the Braves boast one of MLB’s better infields. Defense and speed don’t slump – and rarely does Freeman. The infield’s upside depends on Albies’ consistency, Swanson’s offense and Donaldson evading injury and stalling Father Time.

Part 1: The bench

Part 2: The catchers

Part 3: The infield

Part 4: The outfield

Part 5: The pitching staff

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