The National League East champs added a former MVP to help defend their title – and maybe take them a step further.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson is the Braves’ latest acquisition, signed to a one-year, $23 million deal Monday on the heels of the Brian McCann signing. Donaldson, still regarded as one of the game’s best hitters when healthy, has a long-standing relationship with general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
“I am very happy to be here and share not just this day with Alex, but a lot of memories we’ve had before, and to added memories in the future,” Donaldson said Tuesday at his introductory news conference. “With that said, I was a huge Braves fan growing up. I was a big players fan, and my very first favorite player was Ron Gant. So it’s been a very full circle from coming to my very first Braves game, first major league baseball game when I was about 12 years old, now I’m 32 years old and wearing this jersey, and wearing it with pride.”
Donaldson hails from Pensacola, Fla. He played at Auburn from 2005-07 and lives in Daphne, Ala. His major-league career took him from Oakland to Toronto to Cleveland – not exactly locales boasting southern charm.
But he’s figuratively returned home with Anthopoulos acquiring him for the second time. Donaldson joined Anthopoulos’ Blue Jays before the 2015 season, when he went on to hit .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers, 123 RBIs and 122 runs, winning American League MVP honors.
“What an add for us,” Anthopoulos said. “What a huge piece for us. He just makes our team so much better. I’m thrilled that he had a lot of options for where he wanted to go, being a free agent, and he chose to be here.”
He is several years removed from that highlight year, and the once-iron man has spent a healthy portion of last season on the disabled list. Two calf strains limited him to 52 games, in which he produced a .246 average with eight homers and 23 RBIs.
From 2013-16, Donaldson played no fewer than 155 games. It was an adjustment devoting an entire season to recovery, not to mention being traded entering the season’s final month.
When he’s right, Donaldson is one of the more potent right-handed hitters in baseball. He’s not long removed from hitting .270 with 33 homers and 78 RBIs across 113 games in 2017.
Among active third basemen, Donaldson is second in slugging percentage (.507), fifth in homers (182) and ninth in RBIs (551).
“The offensive profile with his power, his on-base, grind at-bats, great at contact as well, right-handed,” Anthopoulos said. “Intense, competitive gamer. Smart player. That’s hard to find.
“We were concerned, coming into the offseason, about the way our offense performed in the second half of the season. It’s not something we wanted to announce, because we could still improve in the bullpen and the rotation, but the offense, we wanted to get a power, middle-of-the-order bat that brings a presence in the clubhouse, plus defense as well. We couldn’t have found a better fit for us and for this club.”
He’s also reliable defender, fielding third in 805 of his 883 career games. He anticipates his heath benefiting from playing more on grass (as opposed to enduring 90-plus games on turf, as he did with the AL East’s Blue Jays).
Donaldson feels he’s already ahead of schedule health-wise. He’s been running the past few weeks, feeling “comfortable and confident” in his recovery. He’s reunited with much of the training staff he had in Toronto, including head trainer George Poulis.
“George means a lot,” Donaldson said. “He understands me and understands my body. He did a great job for me in Toronto, making the adjustments going to a turf field and really helping me with recovery. He’s a good person as well. I trust him.”
Despite the injuries, he had a healthy market. Donaldson was aware of the Braves’ interest early, and as he worded it, Anthopoulos was “determined” to get him again, just as he was years ago. The talks revved up on Thanksgiving day, and both parties got in front of the market to get a deal done.
“I felt like the market was there because teams knew I wasn’t going to be looking for a long-term deal at this time,” Donaldson said. “But there was definitely interest from a lot of other teams. But with all the things I said, the training staff, Alex, what I saw in this team last year and where I felt like I fit, I felt like it was a no-brainer.”
Anthopoulos envisioned Donaldson as the team’s big bopper. He didn’t set out to add a third baseman – his infield was mostly set – but Donaldson checked the right boxes.
He adds leadership to the team. He adds protection for MVP candidate Freddie Freeman. As solid as Nick Markakis was, the Braves won 90 games without a prototypical clean-up hitter. This was their chance to potentially add such at a price that doesn’t compromise anything expect a year of spending room.
And it helps Donaldson, who can rebuild value and enter the market again next winter. He’ll have the Braves’ commitment in the meantime. The familiarity factor, from the area to the people around him, cannot be overlooked.
“Being a part of this lineup doesn’t hurt either,” Donaldson said, smiling in his No. 20 jersey and hat.
Johan Camargo will be a super utilityman, playing around the diamond and perhaps even the outfield. Third-base prospect Austin Riley will get some work in the outfield as well, Anthopoulos said.
So the Donaldson addition fortified the Braves’ bench. Camargo and Charlie Culberson give them two Swiss Army knives. They plan to give regulars more days off, essentially making those two regulars themselves.
Perhaps a healed Donaldson recaptures his glory, giving the Braves a lineup worthy of the Dodgers’, Cubs’ and Brewers’ attention.
If that’s the case, maybe Donaldson is more than a one-year solution.
“I would hope this could be the last place I play,” he said. “That being said, that’s not what I focus on. I’ve never really focused on free agency or stuff like that. I focus on going out there and helping my team win ballgames, helping my team become better. That’s ultimately the only thing I care about.”
After years of claiming prospect victories, the Braves can again say winning is all they care about.
They’re acting as a team with expectations. They know the rest of the division is trying to catch them. They know they weren’t on par with the NL’s elite last season.
They’re ready to join that tier.
“This organization right now is all about winning,” Anthopoulos said. “You guys saw it last year, we’re calling up kids with a chance to get in the playoffs. Signing guys like Josh – he was the guy we wanted to get this offseason.”
Armed with prospects and remaining spending room, Donaldson likely won’t be the last guy they get either.