If the Braves miss on Donaldson, it’s still hard to see them overpaying a Marcell Ozuna or Nicholas Castellanos, players with strong bats but not strong defenders who could receive deals that are above their perceived value.
Should they lose their slugger, they might be forced to pivot to the trade market, where there are several All-Stars potentially available. They are willing to add an outfielder to address their power shortage, which would lead to a Johan Camargo versus Austin Riley competition for the third-base job in spring, Anthopoulos said.
Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could be obtainable. Note that the Braves almost certainly would have to relinquish one of their “big three” prospects – starter Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters – to add either.
As unlikely as either addition might be, the Braves have been speculatively linked to both by attendees at this week’s winter meetings. But to this point, there’s no evidence the team has had talks with the Indians or Cubs. One or both could become more serious if Donaldson signs elsewhere.
Here’s a look at the three known big-name options:
Braves free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson:
A reunion with Donaldson still makes sense, even after the Braves have spent freely through the first six weeks of the offseason. Retaining Donaldson likely would wrap their offseason spending, given that he’ll command north of the $23 million average annual value he received on his previous one-year deal with the team.
Buzz around the winter meetings is that Donaldson is popular enough to land a three-or-four-year contract. That vanquishes any far-fetched hopes of the Braves retaining him on a shorter, higher AAV contract. Additionally, two of Donaldson’s suitors reside in the National League East: The Phillies and Nationals have been connected to the 34-year-old, while the Dodgers, Rangers and others are interested.
In other words, Donaldson’s market includes several big-market clubs and willing spenders. The Braves might keep him – they’ve publicly expressed their desire to do so on multiple occasions – but they’ll have to win a bidding war.
Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant:
As far as alternatives go, it'll be hard to top Bryant. He's three years removed from an MVP campaign. He's an imposing hitter with a championship resume. He's one of the few potentially available players who would be considered an upgrade over Donaldson. He's a brand name, sure to be a fan favorite and rack up jersey sales.
He’ll also cost a prospect bounty. The Cubs would be dealing away one of the cornerstones of their long-awaited championship club. He’s projected to earn more than $18 million in arbitration (per MLB Trade Rumors projections). There’s a chance, however small, he’ll be a free agent after next season because of a grievance hearing over alleged service-time manipulation; for now, he’s controllable for two more seasons until he’ll receive a massive payday.
“We’re always engaged in the trade market, but as a general rule of thumb, less control is going to impact what you’re willing to give back,” Anthopoulos said Monday.
Bryant, 27, might give the Braves the NL’s best lineup. He’d fit seamlessly into Donaldson’s spot. He’s a lauded teammate, which is important for a franchise that puts extra emphasis on clubhouse chemistry. But acquiring him would require the biggest haul the Braves have traded away since the infamous Mark Teixiera deal of 2007 (not a high bar – their biggest trades bringing in talent since that time were Dan Uggla and Justin Upton).
The Braves also would assume Bryant’s looming free-agency situation. He’ll take a major commitment, which the team could theoretically afford, but hasn’t been known for doing. If the team sees Bryant as only a two-year option, he probably isn’t worth the prospect cost.
All that said, it can’t be ruled out. If the Cubs are willing to move him, the Braves would be a natural fit. It just wouldn’t be a move the Braves usually make.
Lindor is similar to Bryant in the wishful-thinking category. The Indians might move their superstar because 1) they've indicated they can't afford to extend him in two years and 2) his value might be highest now, allowing them to net a significant return.
The Braves could plug Lindor in at shortstop and behind Freddie Freeman in the lineup, possibly improving one of the better offenses in franchise history. He’ll make $16.7 million next season before his final arbitration year.
The consensus in San Diego: Lindor holds more value than Bryant and is less likely to be traded. But it’s not improbable.
As with Bryant, the Braves would have to pay a prospect premium – Lindor likely will carry a higher price tag – and be conscious of his looming free agency. Lindor will be 28 when he hits free agency. He’s looking at a monumental deal.
Again, the Braves aren’t often a team that would into the Bryant-Lindor trade market. They’ve been linked to both already, but the connections are more so based on the obvious: The Braves are contenders with a rich farm system and need for power, while the Cubs and Indians want to maximize their returns. It’s unlikely, but not impossible the Braves will acquire one of the two. It would certainly continue their theme of the offseason: They want to take the next step in contention, and they’re willing to spend to do it.