Bradley’s Buzz: Remember when Josh Donaldson seemed irreplaceable?

Josh Donaldson (left) and Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulo (right) share a laugh during a press conference Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, at the Delta Sky 360 Club at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Combined ShapeCaption
Josh Donaldson (left) and Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulo (right) share a laugh during a press conference Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, at the Delta Sky 360 Club at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Alex Anthopoulos holds no player in higher esteem than Josh Donaldson. As Toronto’s general manager, Anthopoulos landed the third baseman from Oakland for four players in November 2014. Eleven months later, the Blue Jays graced postseason for the first time since 1993. Donaldson was the American League’s MVP. The GM who acquired him was MLB’s executive of the year.

One year and two weeks after being named the Braves’ GM, Anthopoulos again acquired Donaldson, this time as a free agent. The deal was one year at $23 million. Donaldson became, going by WAR, the best everyday player on the 2019 Braves, who won 97 games and took the NL East.

Donaldson again became a free agent at season’s end. Having re-established himself as a difference-maker, he sought a longer deal. “Everybody on the team wanted him back,” Anthopoulos said. “The coaches, the players – we all wanted him back.”

On Jan. 14, 2020, Donaldson signed with Minnesota for four seasons plus a club option for a fifth. The total package was $92M. He’d just turned 34. It was the largest outlay for an everyday player 33 or older.

Donaldson’s exit was seen as a massive loss. In one year here, he’d become an exemplar – a pro’s pro who became known to fans as the Bringer of Rain. There was every reason, save one, to keep him. Donaldson wanted four years; the Braves wouldn’t go past three.

Having just paid Donaldson $23 million at 33, Anthopoulos would have been willing to pay the same guy the same money at 34 and 35. But would the guy be the same at 37?

The Twins took the risk. Two seasons into the contract, they changed their corporate mind. They traded Donaldson, who was coming off a solid 2021 season, to the Yankees in March 2022.

On Wednesday, the Yankees cut Donaldson. He was hitting .142 with an on-base percentage of .225. He’s 37. He’s in the fourth year of his contract, the one the Braves didn’t offer.

In January 2020, Anthopoulos said: “Candidly, the contract went north of where we thought it would be at the start of the offseason. … We had to set a value internally for our team, our setup, our payroll, everything else. We stretched as far as we thought made sense for us. But that was still short of where the Twins were. I completely understood from his standpoint: That deal was way too good to turn down.”

Within a week, the Braves signed Marcell Ozuna for one year at $18M, replacing the right-hand bat they’d lost. He led the National League in homers and RBIs in COVID-shortened 2020. In February 2021, the Braves re-upped Ozuna for four years at $64M. Why a four-year deal for a left fielder/DH but not for a third baseman? Because Ozuna was 30, not 34.

Fast-forward to today. The 32-old Ozuna has 30 home runs with an OPS of .869. He’s on track to have his third-best year over 11 MLB seasons.

As a Brave in 2019, Donaldson’s OPS was .900. It has slipped from .842 to .827 to .682 to .659. He’d been hurt for much of this season. In a headline, the inimitable New York Post described his Yankee tenure as “atrocious.”

Had the Braves kept Donaldson, they might have won the 2020 World Series. (They lost in seven games to L.A. in the NLCS.) They might also have missed the chance to cultivate MLB’s best third baseman.

With Donaldson here, Austin Riley was miscast as a left fielder. Returning to his accustomed position, he has 102 home runs over three seasons. He has twice made the All-Star team. The Twins signed Donaldson for four years at $23M per annum. Today he’s jobless. Riley, who’s 26, is under contract through 2033 at an AAV of $21.2M.

We close by noting that Anthopoulos, who has steered the Braves to five consecutive first-place finishes – this will make six – and the 2021 World Series title, hasn’t been named MLB’s top exec since 2015. This needs to be addressed.

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