Part 1 of a preview series: How the Braves got here.
Before the season, even though the Braves were defending National League East champions, more attention was focused on division rivals the Nationals, Phillies and Mets. Yet, the Braves ran away with the East.
In a five-part series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines how the Braves repeated. Today: The Braves signed Josh Donaldson to largest one-year free agent commitment in history.
The Braves would not be where they are without third baseman Josh Donaldson. Despite Ronald Acuna’s and Freddie Freeman’s gaudy numbers, Donaldson was quite possibly the team’s MVP.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos moved ahead of the iceberg-pace free-agent market to secure Donaldson, a player he acquired while running the Blue Jays. It was a gamble for Anthopoulos, who banked on a familiar face rebounding. It was a gamble for Donaldson, who was another injury-riddled season away from his value completely deteriorating.
The first Anthopoulos-Donaldson union was a successful one that helped revive Toronto and earn Donaldson 2015 American League MVP. Their reunion hasn’t disappointed.
After combating injuries the past two seasons, Donaldson rebounded with a mammoth 2019 season. He’s hit .258 with 37 homers and 93 RBIs as of Friday, giving the Braves one of the more potent lineups they’ve boasted in franchise history.
Donaldson reached Braves lore as a 35-homer, 100-walk threat. Eddie Mathews (1954-55, 1960), Darrell Evans (1973), Dale Murphy (1987) and Chipper Jones (1999) were the only other Braves to do such in one season.
“When he gets hot, he’s the kind of guy who can carry you,” manager Brian Snitker routinely said throughout the campaign.
Donaldson also aided Freddie Freeman, whom he’s hit behind in the clean-up spot, post the best season of his career. He’s brought a new dynamic to the clubhouse, bringing a refreshing personality that his teammates grew to love. Even in the tense times, Donaldson knows how to lighten up a room.
He didn’t open the year with much of a bang, struggling early and looking susceptible to every breaking pitch. Once Donaldson rounded into form, it was easy to remember how the now 33-year-old became an MVP.
Donaldson’s determined and violent, yet elegant, swing popped on the first day of spring training in Florida. How he carries himself, not only from a work-ethic standpoint but with his brash confidence, illuminated the Braves in ways they were lacking a season ago.
And don’t forget the defense, where Donaldson has starred and certainly deserves Gold Glove consideration. The Braves reeled in Donaldson to bolster their offense, but his defense proved just as important in the team’s run.
“He’s right there (among the best I’ve had defensively),” Snitker said. “Chipper (Jones) was great. Josh has been — I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any expectations. I hadn’t been around him. I haven’t been surprised, but it’s been really nice to see how good he is, how athletic he is, how strong that defensive game he has is. He’s a really, really good defensive third baseman.”
Donaldson’s bet on himself will pay off. He’ll re-enter free agency whenever the Braves’ season ends, sitting pretty as one of the premier bats available. Anthopoulos’ bet - the largest one-year free-agent deal in MLB history - looks brilliant.
Regardless how the season ends, the franchise will hope to bring Donaldson back – after all, the biggest difference between the 2018 Braves and 2019 Braves is their third baseman.
“I’ve enjoyed playing here every day,” Donaldson said earlier this month. “And I look forward to playing in this uniform as long as I can.”
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