Josh Donaldson is betting on himself in 2019. On Monday, the Braves announced they signed the former MVP to a one-year, $23 million contract. It’s the most expensive one-year deal ever handed out in free agency, and it represents a fascinating gamble on the part of Donaldson, who is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career.
Set to turn 33 in December, the veteran third baseman saw his 2018 mangled by injuries, appearing in only 52 games between the Blue Jays and Indians. Worrisomely, it was his lower half—in particular a bout of left calf tightness—that kept Donaldson on the shelf for so long last season. It also helped contribute to his unceremonious end in Toronto. The beloved franchise icon was dealt for virtually nothing at the August waiver trade deadline after hitting a meager .234/.333/.423 in 159 plate appearances for the Jays to go with uncharacteristically shaky defense thanks to a mysterious dead arm.
Donaldson perked up in Cleveland, looking like his old self with the glove and slashing .280/.400/.520 down the stretch, but that was over just 60 plate appearances, and he promptly went into the tank during an abbreviated postseason, collecting only one hit in 11 ALDS at-bats. Add it all up, and he was worth a mere 1.2 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version), his lowest since his first full season in the majors back in 2012. That also marked his third straight year with a declining WAR total, from 8.5 in his MVP-winning 2015 campaign to 7.6 the year after to 4.8 in ’17—another season in which he struggled to stay on the field.
The concern going forward is that the soft tissue injuries in Donaldson’s legs become chronic as he continues to age, robbing him of power at the plate, speed on the bases and range at third base. That probably made teams wary of a long-term deal and may have hastened this one-year pact with Atlanta, which is more or less his hometown team (he grew up in the Florida panhandle and went to high school in Alabama before attending Auburn University). And while it’s surprising that Donaldson didn’t play the market a little longer, given that he was the best option at his position in a bad market, it’s hard to argue against $23 million for a year’s work, matching his 2018 salary with Toronto.
The risk Donaldson is taking is twofold. On the one hand, a bad or injury-interrupted season more or less wipes out any chance of a multi-year contract next winter. On the other, if he returns to being a productive player, the Braves could wreck his market by tagging him with the qualifying offer. On top of that, fellow free-agent third basemen next winter will likely include the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon, both of whom will be better and younger options for teams in need of hot corner help.
Still, the odds of Donaldson finding long-term protection this offseason were probably slim coming off his rough 2018. As far as pillow contracts go, you could do a lot worse than $23 million to play for a contender close to home. And even though there are downsides for Donaldson regardless of whether or not he has a good season, the fear of lingering on the open market as so many other players did last winter likely pushed him to take a deal sooner rather than later.
For the Braves, though, there’s nothing but upside on this contract. There’s a chance, and not an insignificant one, that last season represents the beginning of the end for Donaldson. It’s hard to feel great going forward about 33-year-olds with balky legs and a hard-nosed, borderline kamikaze style of play, especially with a fair number of his peripherals trending in the wrong direction. In 2018, Donaldson’s ground-ball rate shot up, his swinging-strike percentage increased, his hard-hit and walk rates both declined for the third straight season, and his average launch angle decreased by nearly two degrees from the year prior.
But if Donaldson is 100%—and again, that's a huge if—then this is nothing short of a steal for Atlanta. Remember that we’re talking about an elite talent on both sides of the ball—someone who averaged a .282/.377/.524 slash line with a 145 OPS+ from 2013 through ’17. Over those five seasons, just one player topped Donaldson’s bWAR total of 36.1: Mike Trout. A healthy Donaldson has few equals across the majors; even at 75–85%, he’s still better than most.
Even if Donaldson doesn’t reach those same heights again, he doesn’t represent a huge outlay on Atlanta’s part. The Braves have just $50.87 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2019; even adding in raises through arbitration, it’s hard to imagine them breaking the $85 million threshold. Donaldson will take payroll close to or over the $100 million mark, but that’s both a drop from last year’s $130 million figure and a pittance relative to the league and the franchise’s financial situation.
Per FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, the Braves—who are owned by multi-billion-dollar corporation Liberty Media—turned a $100 million profit last year, and that’s with a bad TV contract as well as stadium attendance (at a new park that the team paid close to zero to build thanks to exorbitant state subsidies) that ranked outside the top 10. There’s no excuse for Atlanta not to spend money, particularly in light of MLB’s new $5.1 billion TV rights deal with Fox Sports that will pay out millions to each team, and especially with the team’s young core playing for cheap. In other words, the Braves can afford it if Donaldson goes south.
The bigger wrinkle will be what to do with incumbent third baseman Johan Camargo. The 25-year-old Panamanian was quietly excellent for Atlanta last season, hitting .272/.349/.457 with 19 homers and a 116 OPS+; thanks to that and some solid defense, he was worth 3.7 bWAR. He’ll lose his job to Donaldson, though, leaving him in a bit of a lurch. Atlanta could turn him into a super-sub, though he hasn’t played much besides third base, with a little time at shortstop and second base but nowhere else. He could be given the shortstop job over the struggling Dansby Swanson. Or he could be dangled as trade bait, given the presence of not just Donaldson but also top prospect Austin Riley at third.
Regardless, what to do with Camargo is a good problem to have if you’re the Braves. But they can’t stop at Donaldson. (Nor was he the only move of the day: Earlier Monday, the team brought back veteran catcher Brian McCann on a one-year, $2 million deal to pair with Tyler Flowers behind the plate.) The biggest hole currently is rightfield, vacated by free agent Nick Markakis, and Atlanta could use help in the bullpen, too.
Donaldson is a great start, though. He’ll form an imposing top of the order with Ronald Acuña, Jr., and Freddie Freeman and add some veteran leadership to a young clubhouse, and he’ll do so relatively cheap and with no long-term commitment. No matter how you slice it, that’s a big win for the Braves. For Donaldson, it remains to be seen.