The Braves are a clean-up hitter shorter with spring training looming.
Josh Donaldson finally picked his team Tuesday evening, and it wasn’t the Braves: Donaldson landed a four-year contract with the Twins, where he’ll further strengthen one of the American League’s better offensive clubs.
The deal was first reported by Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the deal is for four years, $92 million, with a fifth-year option that could bring the deal to a total value of $100 million. Rosenthal did not clarify the details of the option.
» MORE: What to Braves do now?
Meanwhile, the Braves are left with a gigantic power void. Donaldson, who signed a one-year, $23 million deal last winter, helped turn the Braves from a good team to a very good one. He slotted perfectly in the 4-hole as protection for franchise foundation Freddie Freeman.
The 34-year-old hit 37 homers with 94 RBIs last season, bouncing back from an injury-ridden 2018. He also provided exceptional defense at third. However, Donaldson hit only .216 in his final 111 at-bats, from Aug. 26 through the final game of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals.
Donaldson re-entered the free-agent market seeking a multi-year deal, likely his final big contract. The Braves were publicly adamant about their desire to retain him and keep the core of a 97-win team together.
While the Braves extended a four-year offer, it didn’t match the Twins’ proposal (details of the offer, and its guarantees, are not yet known). The Twins reportedly made a strong impression on Donaldson during their meetings.
And so the Braves, long considered the favorites to keep their slugger, were left at the altar. They’ll evaluate their other avenues with Plan A off the board.
The Braves have checked in on bigger name players who could be available in trade, including the superstar third-base duo of Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant, but acquiring either remains unlikely. Free-agent outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Nick Castellanos are still on the board, though both come with defensive limitations that make their power less appealing.
If the Braves don’t add a third baseman by spring training, Johan Camargo and Austin Riley will compete for the job. That’s far from the ideal scenario, but after weighting the cost of alternatives, the Braves may find themselves taking such a risk.
Camargo manned third base regularly in 2018, but was transferred to a utility role last season when the Braves signed Donaldson. He never found his form and his season was cut short by a shin fracture.
Riley earned a call-up in May and won rookie-of-the-month honors. But he hit a wall through the remainder of the season, struggling to make contact as the homers dwindled and strikeouts piled up. Riley is a young player full of promise, but his shortcomings make him an enormous question mark entering the season.
To bolster the middle of the order, the Braves might turn to an outfield upgrade. They’re currently set to have Ronald Acuna in right field, Ender Inciarte in center and a platoon of Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall in left. Their top position prospects, Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, also are outfielders nearing their MLB debuts.
But the Braves have World Series aspirations, so acquiring a veteran outfielder and sorting out the jam later might be necessary. Certainly, they could get better-than-expected production from one or both of their third basemen.
Regardless, Donaldson leaving is a tremendous hit to their pennant hopes. His power, defense and charisma will be difficult to replace. The NL East, which the Braves have claimed the past two seasons, just became even more competitive.
Braves pitchers and catcher report to North Port, Fla., on Feb. 12, with position players to follow Feb. 17.
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