Now that Anthony Rendon has signed with the Angels, Josh Donaldson is both the top third baseman remaining on the open market and quite possibly the top free agent still available at any position. There was already enough interest in Donaldson that he was reportedly looking more and more likely to receive a four-year commitment, which is good news for a player who “is seeking the largest possible guarantee” in his next contract, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal writes (subscription required).
The star third baseman just turned 34 this week and, since his injury-plagued 2018 season already cost him his first chance at a big multi-year free agent deal last winter, it isn’t surprising that Donaldson wants to max out his payday now that he is coming off an outstanding 2019 campaign. Rosenthal hears that “all things being equal, Donaldson’s preference is to return to the Braves,” though if it comes down to a pure bidding war, Atlanta doesn’t seem to have the available payroll to outspend Donaldson suitors like the Dodgers, Rangers, Twins, or Nationals.
The Braves have already spread some significant cash around this winter, adding free agents Cole Hamels, Will Smith, and Travis d’Arnaud while re-signing Chris Martin, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, and Darren O’Day. As per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez, Atlanta is set to spend just under $142.2MM on player salaries next season, which would be the largest payroll in franchise history. $142.2MM is a modest number compared to what most contending teams spend, though since there has long been speculation about how much money the Liberty Media ownership group would be willing to allocate to payroll, adding another major contract to the books (Donaldson’s next deal could well be in the area of $25MM in average annual value) might not be feasible, unless other salaries were cut loose.
If Atlanta misses out on Donaldson, they might need to get creative in adding another big bat to their lineup. Reports from earlier this week suggested that the Braves could look to Marcell Ozuna, though Rosenthal notes that “they currently have only limited interest” in Ozuna’s services. As for another big third base target in the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, Rosenthal notes that Atlanta is among the clubs who have concerns about Bryant’s declining glovework (as per UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved) over the last few seasons. This doesn’t necessarily rule out a potential trade between the Braves and Cubs since Bryant could be used as a corner outfielder, though it doesn’t seem like Bryant is at the top of the Braves’ list at this point.
Speaking of fallback options for Donaldson, Rosenthal writes that Starlin Castro and Maikel Franco are on the Nationals’ radar as third base candidates. Washington has gotten long looks at both players from their days in the NL East, though both Castro and Franco would certainly be stopgap options at best given their underwhelming performances over the last few seasons. Castro has been a slightly below-average run producer (98 OPS+ and wRC+) since the start of the 2016 campaign, while Franco hasn’t lived up his billing as one of baseball’s top prospects, hitting only .249/.302/.431 over 2539 career PA with the Phillies.
In terms of bigger-ticket additions at third base, Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post (Twitter link) reports that the Nationals have yet to touch base with the Cubs about Bryant, contrary to earlier reports. This isn’t to say that the Nats couldn’t still look into Bryant should Donaldson sign with another team.