When the Atlanta Braves signed former American League MVP and veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal last winter, there were plenty of skeptics coming out of the woodwork.
Donaldson was just one year removed from a season in which he hit 33 homers and posted a .944 OPS. But he had also combined to play 165 games over the past two years, including a 2018 where he played just 36 games for the Toronto Blue Jays before being shipped to the Cleveland Indians at the waiver deadline.
The Braves were taking a big cap hit in the hopes that Donaldson could return to MVP form, or at least something resembling his former self. It seemed like a make-or-break deal, especially given the needs that Atlanta still had in the bullpen.
But with the Braves evening their NLDS series against the Atlanta Cardinals on Friday afternoon, Donaldson keeps validating the signing. In fact, he is making the case for an extension.
As previously mentioned, the assumption was that the Braves would look to bolster their pitching staff in the offseason. The bullpen had been a disaster in 2018, and the starting rotation did not look terribly deep outside of Mike Foltynewicz and the youngsters coming through the farm system.
But with Donaldson in the lineup, the Braves scored nearly 100 more runs than they did in 2018. Aside from also getting a full year from Ronald Acuna, the Braves and manager Brian Snitker used Donaldson to provide protection for the top of the order, and vice-versa.
Freddie Freeman had one of the most productive seasons of his career batting in front of Donaldson. In return, Donaldson had a big year as he finally proved to be fully healthy. Donaldson slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 homers, and he led the team with 100 walks.
With Acuna acting as a catalyst in the leadoff spot and both Freeman and Donaldson working opposing pitchers to death, nearly everyone else improved around them. Dansby Swanson had his best season at the dish, and Ozzie Albies–who actually spent most of the season towards the bottom of the lineup–was one of the most dangerous bats from both sides of the dish.
That kind of butterfly effect would have been negated if Donaldson himself had not been so productive, but he also likely benefited from hitting behind Freeman.
Friday was a perfect example of how Atlanta can string runs together. After Acuna grounded out to lead off the bottom of the first inning, Albies reached on an infield single and moved to second on a ball in the dirt. Freeman advanced him to third with a ground ball to the right side. Donaldson then singled Albies home to give the Braves the early advantage.
Atlanta is simply a better and more holistic team with Donaldson in the lineup.
Flashing leather at the hot corner
Donaldson was one of the best defenders in baseball this season. He ranked second–behind Matt Chapman of the Oakland Athletics–in terms of most Defensive Runs Saved (15) at third base.
With a good first step and a strong throwing arm, Donaldson is an incredible asset at the hot corner. Although some of his range has gone with age and injury, his instincts are tremendous.
The Braves ranked fourth in the MLB in fielding percentage last season (.987) and eighth in FanGraphs overall defensive value. Donaldson’s fluidness and steady impact at third are a major reason that they have continued to have success as a team defensively.
Bridge to the future
Eventually, Atlanta hopes that Austin Riley will be the future at third base. Riley debuted for the Braves this season, and he showcased some of his potential as he clubbed 18 homers in 80 games.
However, Riley’s youth was also on full display. He struck out in over 33 percent of his plate appearances, and he had almost no chance against breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
Donaldson’s presence in Atlanta could allow the Braves to continue to use Riley as a utility or platoon guy, especially because it is unknown whether or not the team will pick up Nick Markakis’ option for 2020.
The Braves took a risk on Donaldson, and he rewarded them with a massive bounce-back year. His passion and veteran leadership are incredibly valuable for an Atlanta team that should continue to grow. They should do everything they can to bring him back into the fold.