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Josh Donaldson wait extends into 2020

Here's a by the numbers look at Josh Donaldson's 2019 season with the Braves.

There is one premier free agent remaining on the market, and he holds an undeniable impact over the Braves’ 2020 season.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson, so important to a potent offense that propelled last season’s Braves to 97 wins, sits unsigned to begin the new year. Donaldson has been the consensus best free agent on the board since starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon settled in with their teams.

The Braves have worked overtime to keep negotiations with Donaldson under wraps. What we know: They want him back, and he’d like to be back, if aspects are equal. Debate has raged on regarding the possibility of the team offering Donaldson a four-year contract, and MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported Thursday that the Braves have indeed extended a four-year offer, though details aren’t known.

While that four-year offer isn’t necessarily a fully guaranteed deal, that the Braves are willing to dip into that level of commitment shows the importance of retaining their slugger. Donaldson hit 37 homers and knocked in 94 runs last season, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors.

It was a match made in heaven. Donaldson, a Florida native and Auburn product, returned to the South and was reunited with general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who acquired him in Toronto. For the Braves, they bolstered their offense with a former MVP while committing to only a one-year, $23 million deal.

Donaldson’s bet on himself hit the jackpot. He’s nicely positioned to earn a major payday in the coming weeks, be it with the Braves or another contending club. The Twins and Nationals remain two of the more aggressive suitors for the 34-year-old.

He single-handily controls the remainder of the Braves’ offseason. The team doesn’t seem inclined to shift to a plan B until he’s made his decision. There’s not a worthy alternative on the free-agent market, meaning the club would have to trade to address its gaping power hole (if Donaldson leaves).

Instead of denting the farm system to absorb the contract of, say, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, there’s an argument for giving Donaldson his desired four-year deal, retaining the prospects and keeping a promising core intact. The Braves would have prospect capital available for another move, should that come before opening day or at the deadline.

Still, that Donaldson hasn’t signed yet is intriguing, especially if the team has made a four-year offer. He’ll be compensated handsomely wherever he goes, and if that’s Atlanta, it’s a home-run offseason for the Braves. They also acquired All-Star reliever Will Smith, starter Cole Hamels and catcher Travis d’Arnaud. They kept relievers Chris Martin and Darren O’Day, along with veteran catcher Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis.

But if Donaldson winds up in a different uniform, previous offseason moves will be overshadowed by the team’s lone need in the cleanup spot. If the Braves pay him what he’s seeking, the offseason should keep them among the National League’s elite. However it ends for the Braves, it’s a good time to be Donaldson.