Life after Donaldson: Braves explore options after slugger departs for Twins

Josh Donaldson was a Brave for only one season. Yet his fit was so natural, his personality so suitable, his production so solid, he seemed destined to stay part of the family.

Which made it all-the-more gut-wrenching for Braves fans when Donaldson bid farewell to the family Tuesday night. When the 34-year-old free agent agreed to a deal with Minnesota, it opened an enormous power gap down South.

Donaldson departed for the Twin Cities, leaving what seemed to be the perfect match:
• Leaving general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who clearly adored him but apparently not quite enough. 
• Leaving Atlanta, the South's king city which resides not far from Alabama, where Donaldson's family and friends could see him play in the shadow of home. 
• Leaving his teammates, who grew to love his outlandish personality over the course of the season's trek.

The Braves, coming off a 97-win season that produced their second consecutive division title, lost one of their lineup's best hitters. After months of negotiation and a winter of rumors that centered on one individual, a crucial piece of the Braves' record-setting offense was suddenly gone.

Now, the Braves must turn to other options. Plan B, C, or D if keeping Donaldson was Plan A. There are options inside and outside the organization.

» MARK BRADLEY: No plan B after Donaldson

Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in less than a month, Feb. 12, and the Braves' roster looks incomplete. They plugged most of their holes before Christmas; now the largest one of all looms over an otherwise successful offseason.

The Braves don't have a clear-cut power hitter. They just lost 37 homers and 94 RBIs, along with the intangibles Donaldson brought. They lost his steady defense. They lost a marketable star, the "Bringer of Rain," who prompted Southerners to bring out their umbrellas on the sunniest days. Now, they'll be making "Purple Rain" references in Minneapolis while the only umbrellas you'll see at Truist Park will be due to ill-timed summer storms.

Josh Donaldson appeared in 155 games with the Braves in 2019

Minnesota reportedly impressed Donaldson in their meetings. The Twins came armed with a fully guaranteed four-year contract that included a fifth-year option. He'll make at least $92 million. The Braves weren't willing to reach such heights.

It might prove wise in the long run — Donaldson is 34, after all — but in the short term, the Braves have a major issue. The ultra-competitive National League East is licking its chops. An integral part of the mighty Braves is now the American League’s problem. A lineup that imposed so much fear a season ago looks much easier to navigate Jan. 15.

But that’s the catch: It’s January. The offseason is very much alive and well. There are options, though all flawed, to fill the Donaldson vacancy. Perhaps the Braves are a shrewd move away from coming up roses; they’re a mistake away from potentially costing themselves a third consecutive playoff appearance.

They didn’t earn themselves any good graces with the fans by letting Donaldson walk, but satisfying fans can be a fool’s errand. Bottom line: If the Braves still win, it won’t really matter. They made this decision in the long-term interest, even if it hurts today.

In future times, Donaldson might be remembered as the best one-year free-agent signing in team history. He helped create one of the most exciting Braves since the club relocated to Atlanta in 1966. He’ll was revered, but he’s a part of the past now. All the Braves can do is look forward to their other options.

About those fancy alternatives: Rather than spend a massive sum of prospects and cash to acquire a star third baseman such as Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant, the Braves are likelier to explore the outfield market. They’ve checked on both high-profile players, but the organization isn’t inclined to make such a splash.

Arenado’s value is complicated by a lengthy contract and opt-out in two years. The 28-year old is signed through his age 35 season for $244 million should he not opt out. The Rockies will want rich prospect compensation for their face of the franchise as well.

Bryant has defensive concerns and is set to reel in a record deal in 2022 (if not sooner because of a grievance filed against the team over service-time manipulation). The Cubs, of course, have set a high price for their former MVP.

Should the Braves turn their attention to the outfield, as expected, the third base hole will be addressed internally. In-house candidates Johan Camargo and Austin Riley are slated to compete for the job, with Camargo the probable starter. While both are risks, their presence allows the Braves to find their clean-up hitter at another position.

That’s where the outfield comes in. Ronald Acuna is set to man right field, Ender Inciarte is slotted in center and a Nick Markakis-Adam Duvall platoon would be featured in left. The Braves could shift those players around and alter their playing time if another outfielder is added; they’d certainly be in a good position depth-wise.

Two available outfielders stand out among the pack: Free agents Marcell Ozuna and Nick Castellanos. Both possess pop that can make up for much of Donaldson’s production, though both come with defensive limitations. The Braves aren’t in a position to be picky, but they also won’t act on desperation. We’ve seen enough from this regime to know how it values patience.

Ozuna tormented the Braves in the NLDS, helping the Cardinals advance. A longtime Marlin, Ozuna hit 52 homers for the Cardinals over the past two seasons. Rumors have connected him to the Braves for much of the winter, and while past interest was to a degree overstated, the team might now pivot more seriously to Ozuna.

Castellanos was dealt from the Tigers to the Cubs at July’s trade deadline. He hit 16 homers and knocked in 36 runs over 51 games for the Cubs, bringing his season totals to 27 home runs and 73 RBIs. Castellanos, while an uninspiring defender, has slugged 23-plus homers in three consecutive seasons. He averaged 83 RBIs per campaign over that time. However, his defense can be so atrocious it cuts into his offensive value.

Neither player is Donaldson, to be clear. But each can replicate a sizable chunk of his offensive production at a lower cost. And neither would cost the Braves precious prospects, which preserves the franchise’s lifeblood and gives it more ammunition come July.

Braves' top 2020 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline

Speaking of prospects, that throws another issue into the mix. The Braves will have lauded outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters simmering in Triple-A. They could both debut this season. How much the Braves are willing to invest in an outfielder will be influenced by the Pache-Waters portion of the equation.

There are lesser discussed names the Braves could consider on the trade market. They were interested in Mitch Haniger last winter but Seattle wasn’t ready to move him. Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte is reportedly acquirable and would be a force in the Braves’ lineup. Free-agent Yasiel Puig wasn’t of strong interest in the past, but could the Braves be needy enough to roll the dice on a one-year deal?

Those aren’t the only names. There are ample options, even if most aren’t particularly exciting. If the Pache-Waters factor, along with less-than-ideal asking prices, forces the Braves to keep the status quo, they’ll again ask for patience. It can be argued that hasn’t yet steered them wrong.

The Braves made a choice not to meet Donaldson’s asking price, for better or worse. When they took that stance, they were aware they would be thrust into this situation. Plan B was the choice the Braves made. Now, they’re tasked with balancing the nearer future and not only keeping their franchise atop the NL East, but engineering a roster built to go deeper in the playoffs.

That mission will succeed or fail without Donaldson.