The Atlanta Braves, instead of getting better coming off a 97-win season, only got worse after losing Josh Donaldson to Minnesota.
The Atlanta Braves had a chance to prove to their fanbase that they were willing to build on their 97-win 2019 season. Instead, Josh Donaldson is heading north to Minnesota and the Braves are a worse team now than when they lost Game 5 of the NLDS to the Cardinals in October.
Donaldson signed a four-year, $92 million free agent deal with the Twins on Tuesday, bringing an end to his career in Atlanta after one season. Limited by injuries to just 52 games in 2018, split between Toronto and Cleveland, Donaldson had a bounce-back season in 2019 with the Braves, hitting 37 home runs and driving in 94.
There are reasons why the Braves were hesitant to match what the Twins were willing to give Donaldson. He’s 34 and will be 37 by the time the deal expires. The record of players in their late-30s, who already have a long injury history, isn’t good.
But the Braves aren’t built for 2023; they had a lineup to contend now, and Donaldson’s departure leaves a gaping hole in it. His absence will have repercussions around the entire batting order.
Donaldson often served as the Braves clean-up hitter, batting fourth in the order behind Freddie Freeman. Before May 10, when Donaldson first started batting after him, Freeman was slugging .517 with a .920. With Donaldson providing him protection, his slugging percentage went up nearly 40 points and his OPS by more than 20. Freeman hit seven home runs in 151 at-bats before Donaldson and 31 homers in 446 at-bats afterward, an increase of nearly three percentage points. The four-time All-Star set career highs in homers (38) and RBI (121).
Donaldson also provided outstanding defense at third base. He was behind just Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman in outs above average among third baseman in 2019 and was behind only Chapman in defensive runs saved. His likely replacement in Atlanta, Johan Camargo, was 59th out of 80 among third baseman with at least 100 innings.
Camargo and second-year player Austin Riley are now slated to share third base duties for the Braves in 2020. But neither is the threat that Donaldson was at the plate. Camargo (.233/.279/.384) had an OPS nearly .240 points lower than Donaldson. Riley, who doesn’t turn 23 until April, got on-base at a clip 100 points worse than the former MVP he’s trying to replace.
The Braves may have been unwilling to give Donaldson $23 million guaranteed over the next four seasons, but given their young players still on team-friendly deals, they could’ve easily afforded it. Ronald Acuna is under contract through 2028 and is making $1 million next season. Ozzie Albies, under team control until 2027, is also making just $1 million in 2020. That’s 65 home runs and 187 RBI for $2 million combined.
Acuna and Albies are part of a roster that is still young and talented. The Braves still have perennial MVP candidate Freeman. They still have a young rotation headed by Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz. Of their projected starters for 2020, only Nick Markakis and recent acquisition Travis d’Arnaud are older than 30.
This lineup helped the Braves win 97 games in 2019, their most since 2003, and the NL East title. When they suffered an early exit from the postseason after giving up 10 runs in the first inning to the Cardinals in the fifth and deciding game of the NLDS, they showed they’re a club that still needs improvement. But so far their biggest splashes in free agency consist of d’Arnaud, reliever Will Smith, and 36-year-old starting pitcher Cole Hamels on a one-year deal.
General Manager Alex Anthopoulos may still pull off a big move, such as trading for Arenado or the Cubs’ Kris Bryant. But the Twins showed that they’re a club who had a disappointing postseason and were willing to get better; the Braves, at least so far, have failed to do the same.