Offseason planning is underway for the Braves, whom the Cardinals routed, 13-1, in Game 5 of the teams’ NLDS matchup Wednesday. One of the most important questions now facing the Braves is whether they’ll be able to re-sign standout third baseman Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be 34-year-old is weeks from returning to free agency after posting an excellent bounce-back season in Atlanta, which inked him to a $23MM guarantee last winter.
During the Braves’ NL East-winning regular season, both general manager Alex Anthopoulos and and Donaldson expressed an openness to keeping their union alive beyond this year. Anthopoulos again spoke on Donaldson’s future Thursday, telling reporters (including Gabe Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and David O’Brien of The Athletic) that talks on a new deal haven’t begun yet. However, Anthopoulos is of the belief that “we positioned ourselves, if all things are equal from a contractual standpoint – I haven’t had this discussion with him or his agent – but I believe this would be where he wants to be. I know he enjoyed it here.”
Of course, whether all things will end up being equal from a contractual standpoint is far from a given. Anthopolous noted that “it’s just too hard” to handicap the Braves’ chances of retaining Donaldson, as he’s set to venture back to the market as one of the elite position players available. Donaldson surely won’t get there without first receiving an ~$18MM qualifying offer from the Braves, which won’t do his market any favors. His age and the fact that injuries have hampered him in the past (including from 2017-18) will also work against him.
On the other hand, Donaldson’s a former AL MVP who remains a star. And if he was able to score a lofty $23MM salary last year off his worst season in recent memory, it stands to reason he’ll do even better this time after a return to form. Donaldson slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 4.9 fWAR in 659 plate appearances this season, thereby making a case for a two- to three-year contract worth in the range of $23MM per annum. That would be a substantial and risky commitment, of course, though Donaldson should draw plenty of interest from third base-needy teams that can’t or won’t go to what could be $200MM-plus lengths for Nationals pending free agent Anthony Rendon.
If the Braves don’t end up with Donaldson, Rendon or any other starting-caliber option, they could theoretically plug Austin Riley in at the hot corner next season. The 22-year-old Riley’s a natural third baseman who, thanks to Donaldson’s presence, spent his first major league season in the outfield. Riley, one of the game’s highest-ranked prospects when the Braves promoted him in mid-May, began his career with a flourish. But his offensive bubble burst as the year progressed, leaving him a .226/.279/.471 hitter with a bloated 36.4 percent strikeout rate in his first 297 trips to the plate. The Braves kept Riley off their NLDS roster, and they’re not heading into the offseason with the belief that he’s a slam dunk to start anywhere next year.
“As we sit here today, do I see us cementing him and giving him a position going into next year, where the job is his, whether it’s outfield or third base? Unlikely at this point,” said Anthopoulos. “That being said, do we believe in him long term? Absolutely.”
Anthopoulos went on to note that Riley still has minor league options, giving the team the ability to send him down if he doesn’t win a job in the spring. Even if Atlanta re-signs Donaldson to continue handling third, the club’s unwillingness to guarantee Riley a spot could have an effect on its offseason outfield plans.
Aside from the all-world Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves are currently lacking high-impact options in the grass. Stud prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters are getting closer to the bigs, though, which could persuade Atlanta against a big-ticket acquisition. Regardless, the Braves will have to decide whether to exercise right fielder Nick Markakis’ $6MM option or buy him out for $2MM after he underwhelmed in 2019. Billy Hamilton looks like a $1MM buyout waiting to happen, as the Braves won’t want to pay him $7.5MM. Ender Inciarte still has two guaranteed years left on his contract, and he’ll earn an affordable $7MM in 2020, though he’s coming off an injury-plagued campaign. Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Adam Duvall’s projected to make a not-insignificant $3.8MM in ’20 despite having spent most of the season in the minors.
The Braves haven’t won a playoff series in 18 years, a streak they’ll hope to be in position to break next fall. Until then, Anthopoulos’ goal is to “get better in all areas — offense, defense, bullpen, rotation — and we plan on doing that. We just don’t know how the offseason … what opportunities will present themselves.”