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Braves missed big on a prime opportunity

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After whiffing on Donaldson, the Braves are left with few good options and a gaping hole in their lineup.

2019 NLDS Game 5 - St. Louis Cardinals v. Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Braves entered this offseason with a glaring need for a third baseman, preferably a power-hitting right-hander who could hit cleanup behind Freddie Freeman. There was a free agent available that checked these boxes, had already exhibited that he fit in well with the team, and wanted to sign with the Braves. His name is Josh Donaldson, and he’s now a member of the Minnesota Twins.

At worst, whiffing on Donaldson is an indication that the Braves continue to set the goalposts at what it will take to compete for another division title instead of what it will take to compete for a World Series and aren’t willing to spend what it takes to do the latter.

Even in a more favorable light (one in which you don’t think Donaldson is worth the contract that the Twins gave him), missing out on him was at least a miscalculation by Alex Anthopoulos, as there aren’t many appealing options left to replace Donaldson. Anthopoulos seemingly put a lot of eggs in the Donaldson basket and came up empty. There were reports pretty early in free agency that Donaldson was likely getting four-year offers. If the Braves never intended to offer a fourth year, they should have pivoted earlier. But now Anthony Rendon and Mike Moustakas have signed with other teams, and the only remaining free agent third basemen who were above replacement-level in 2019 are Pablo Sandoval and Sean Rodriguez. The Braves could pursue Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant via trade, but rest assured their prices just went way up with Donaldson now off the market. (I wrote earlier, too, why an Arenado trade makes little sense for the Braves.) Donaldson was the last viable option for the Braves to get an impact third baseman without having to trade away a package of prospects, and he’s now going to Minnesota.

The Braves could soften the blow by signing Marcell Ozuna or Nick Castellanos, but signing one of them to a long-term deal would leave only one outfield spot for top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters. While I generally believe in stockpiling talent as much as possible, adding another outfielder long term would be less ideal than a third baseman. Anthopoulos has seemingly painted himself into a corner.

But it didn’t have to be this way. The Braves could have offered a Donaldson a contract that was more competitive in terms of guaranteed money. While I understand the argument against paying for a fourth year for a player of Donaldson’s age, sometimes overpaying at the end of a contract is what it takes to acquire the talent necessary to win a championship. Additionally, the Braves could have been creative with their offer by adding in performance-based escalators or a vesting fourth-year option. Such an agreement would at least ensure that the team got a good value on the front end of the contract before having to pay more. While we do not know the specifics of the contract negotiations, it is disappointing to see that, for a team so close to having a championship-caliber roster, the Braves lost out to a $92 million offer, especially when Atlanta was Donaldson’s preferred destination.

The context to this offseason makes this swing-and-a-miss even more frustrating. The Braves won back-to-back NL East titles but were bounced from the playoffs in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. We know that the core of this team is good enough to win the division, but we don’t know if the team is willing to increase payroll enough to make the moves necessary to win a championship. With record revenues and a team within its winning window, if this isn’t the time to make that leap, then it likely will never happen.

Moreover, losing the Donaldson sweepstakes now brings the Braves’ offseason to this point into question. The Braves started the offseason aggressively improving the bullpen and filling holes at catcher and in the rotation. These were welcomed moves when the Braves were still in pursuit and even perceived favorites to re-sign Donaldson. And those acquisitions seemed at the time to be indicative of a significant increase in payroll. However, now one has to wonder if, for example, the Braves hadn’t allocated so much money towards improving the bullpen, would they have been willing to sweeten the Donaldson offer enough to land him? Is spending $27 million on two relievers on the wrong side of 30 years old (Mark Melancon and Will Smith) while having a big hole in the middle of the order a prudent allocation of resources?

To be fair, the offseason is not over, and the Braves, under Anthopoulos’ leadership, have exceeded expectations each of the last two seasons. The young players and prospects could take steps forward to fill Donaldson’s void, and there is still time before the regular season to improve the roster. But no matter how you view it, this was a missed opportunity, and the team must now be willing to do other things they might not feel comfortable with to compensate for the loss of Donaldson. They will have to be all the more clever and daring to assemble a roster that is equal to or better than last season’s.