Braves offseason grade hinges on Donaldson

Joe Patrick
December 06, 2019 - 11:24 am

The Atlanta Braves have moved early and often in the first month of Major League Baseball’s free agency period, snapping up five players that will cost the club upwards of $82 million. That’s a big move for a team that’s been held to a relative shoestring budget — considering the team’s bona-fide contender status — over the last couple of seasons.

But are the Braves better today than they were two months ago after the team was pummeled in Game 5 of the NLDS? That’s debatable.

The obvious caveat that must be pointed out is that the team is clearly not done building for 2020. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos admitted on a call with reporters earlier this week that the team still has to sort out its third base position, and could potentially add even more reinforcements down the line.

But at the moment, the team has a Josh Donaldson-shaped hole in the middle of its order and at third base. The former American League MVP flashed impressive glove skills in a resurgent 2019 season on his way to leading the team with a 4.9 WAR (just behind Ronald Acuña’s 5.6 WAR last season). He provided the best protection Freddie Freeman has received in his career as Donaldson hit 37 homers with a .900 OPS. I don’t need to go on and on about Donaldson’s value — if you regularly watch the Braves, you know the impact he provided.

And you also know how difficult he’d be to replace if the Braves are unable to come to terms to bring him back. That’s why, despite what the Braves have done thus far in free agency by reinforcing the bullpen and bringing in some reliable veterans like Cole Hamels and Travis d’Arnaud, so much still hinges on what is yet to be accomplished this offseason. If the Braves are able to lock in Donaldson, it’s a huge success that sets the team in pole position to repeat once again as NL East champions with a legitimate shot at a World Series appearance. If they try to jerry-rig the lineup — let’s say by using a Johan Camargo/Austin Riley rotation at third base and signing a corner outfielder to pair alongside Nick Markakis — it’s easy to see the team sliding backward in what is likely to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.

I wrote earlier about the signing of Cole Hamels being a gamble — that the Braves front office and management is fully relying on its young talent to continue to develop and emerge. But some gambles are worth taking. Last year saw the emergence of Mike Soroka as a dominant pitcher in the National League, a second-half return to All-Star form by Mike Foltynewicz, and Max Fried establishing himself as a quality starting pitcher at the Major League level. Combine that with the pool of young talented arms the Braves have to compete for one final spot in the rotation, you can see why Anthopoulos says the team has no “short-term plans” to bring in another proven quality starter.

Braves brass will similarly place their bets — no matter what route they decide to go — when it comes to third base. Even safe bets can backfire, and bringing Donaldson back on a player-friendly deal might seem secure initially but could easily blow up in their face if he reaggravates an injury or simply sees his performance decline in his mid-30s. 

But deciding to go with an alternative route to Donaldson — a Plan B — would be riskier with seemingly limited on-field returns. Any Plan B would certainly be a thriftier option than the ~$25 million it will cost to re-sign Donaldson, so the wins under this kind of gamble would primarily be financial, ergo irrelevant to most fans. Barring injury, it’s unlikely that the Braves can spend less to bring in a player who will outperform Donaldson in 2020.

For this reason, it’s hard to fully judge Atlanta’s offseason at this point in time. Each individual move so far has been shrewd and well-reasoned on a case-by-case basis. But until more context is revealed, it’s impossible to make a holistic determination on the Braves’ outlook.

So far, so good. But incomplete.

Related: What does Hamels signing mean for Donaldson?