Free agency is finally starting to heat up, as the Braves have signed third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one year, $23 million deal. Donaldson, 32, dealt with several injuries last season. In just 52 games, he hit .246/.352/.449 with 8 home runs and compiled a 1.2 WAR. Before that season, he had a three year stretch with the Blue Jays where he averaged a .945 OPS and a 7.0 WAR. Obviously, Atlanta is hoping that Donaldson can regain that form this season, which is why they were willing to take a $23 million bet on him.
Can Donaldson once again be the MVP caliber player he was before last season or was last season the start of a decline? Surprisingly, his hard contact rate of 41% was a career high last season, according to FanGraphs. However, his contact rate was all the way down of 69.1% was significantly lower than his average contact rate of 76.3%, and his groundball rate of 47.8% was much higher than his career rate of 42.9%. Still, the sample size is so small that’s hard to take anything away from those numbers. In fact, there’s no way to tell what kind of player Donaldson will be this season. One thing is for certain however, it all relies on his health.
Upgrading at third base didn’t seem to be a priority for the Braves. They got great production at that position last season from Johan Camargo, who hit .272/.349/.806 with 19 home runs and a 3.7 WAR. At 24 years old, he seemed to be the long-term answer at third base, and Donaldson now blocks him. Still, there is some concern with Camargo. He isn’t the ideal power threat that you would want from an everyday third baseman. He also may have benefitted from a lot of luck; his .272 average was much higher than his .242 expected average, according to Baseball Savant. Now, Camargo is still a good player but was he ever the future at third base. Atlanta currently has a very intriguing third base prospect in their system in Austin Riley, who is ranked the 43rd best prospect in all of baseball, according to MLB.Com. His .294/.360/.522 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A is encouraging, and the 21-year-old looks a year away from being ready. That makes Donaldson a terrific fit; he’ll be the third baseman this season before Riley takes over the following season. As for Camargo, he can either be in a utility role, where he is best suited, or he could be part of a trade package to acquire a pitcher.
$23 million is a lot, but if any team can take that risk, it’s the Braves. They only had around $60 million committed to next season before adding Donaldson, so they can still continue to address their other needs, such as the bullpen, rotation, or a right fielder. If Donaldson does regain his form, the Braves are getting an MVP caliber player in the middle of the order of a lineup that lacked depth before this signing. If he gets injured, which is the only way that this signing will be a complete failure, they can either call up Riley or use Camargo if they retain him. With their payroll so low and options at third base in case he gets injured, no team was in a better position to take this gamble on Donaldson than the Braves. In fact, Atlanta may be the only team that could handle the risk of $23 million being wasted due to those two factors.
I’d give the Braves a “B+” on this deal; this is only a one year deal and he could be the difference maker in winning a World Series if healthy. With other “safety nets” at third base and their financial flexibility, Atlanta’s gamble of Donaldson makes sense, as they’ll be able to stay in contention even if he deals with injuries once again.