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Starting Nine: With Donaldson going north, how will Braves protect Freeman in lineup?

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Plus, scandals could have teams calling for Ron Washington, Shane Greene’s impending arbitration hearing and the reality of the Truist Park name

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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
After Josh Donaldson was moved to cleanup, Freddie Freeman hit 38 percent above average with a .387 wOBA.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Within a 24-hour span, the Braves unveiled a new stadium name that was at once uninspired and expected and lost Josh Donaldson to the Twins. Now it’s time to pick up the pieces, get a swear jar for every time you refer to the it as SunTrust Park and figure out how this lineup is going to duplicate their former third baseman’s production and shield Freddie Freeman.

As we get rolling with this week’s Starting Nine, there’s no better place than with the fallout from Donaldson returning to the American League.

1. With Donaldson going north, how will Braves protect Freeman in lineup?

Josh Donaldson has taken his umbrella-inducing power to the Twins and it’s left the Braves in a bad way ... but before we go any further, a mea culpa. We got off on the wrong foot in the Starting Nine, with last week’s assertion that the third baseman returning to Atlanta felt like inevitable. To be fair, with Minnesota expected to be in the $85 million range, their landing Donaldson didn’t seem likely and the comfort of the Braves seemed the most logical ending. But the Twins going to $92 million over four years with a fifth option season that could push the deal’s total to $100 million got the job done and has the former MVP in Target Field through potentially his age-38 season. The Braves were said to not be willing to match that deal’s length or go to $100 million, on-brand with general manager Alex Anthopoulos reluctancy to go that long on any contract, and it’s understandable given the age component. The expectation now is that Johan Camargo gets first crack at reestablishing himself at third base, but it’s the 132 wRC+ and 37 homers that Donaldson produced and that needs replacing that’s of far bigger concern, especially when it comes to protecting franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman. Brian Snitker tried and failed with moving Ronald Acuña Jr. out of the leadoff spot down to fourth behind the first baseman (which he’d later call himself “a dumbass” for), but as it stands, would the Braves even have a choice? Beyond Acuña, there’s only two options that Steamer has projected to hit above league average in 2020: Ozzie Albies (113 wRC+) and Nick Markakis (103), and one other that’s tabbed to hit the 20-home run threshold with Austin Riley, and the latter two aren’t expected to be everyday players. Through the first 163 plate appearances of 2019, when Freeman had Acuña behind him, the first baseman had a 127 wRC+ and .370 wOBA and the outfielder had a .366 on-base percentage. After the switch of Donaldson at fourth and Acuña at leadoff, Freeman’s numbers jumped to his hitting 38 percent above average with a .387 wOBA and before he was slowed by injury in September, Acuña’s OBP had jumped 20 points. Whether the Braves turn their attention to the outfield with Nicholas Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna or try and land Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado via trade, simply moving Acuña back down to cleanup can’t be the solution. But what is?

2. Braves focus should now turn squarely on Nolan Arenado

Bryant is intriguing, but he has just two years until free agency (one if he wins his grievance with the Cubs) and the Braves could have eyes for free agents Ozuna and Castellanos or another trade target in Starling Marte, but circumstances should make Anthopoulos and Co. aggressive and bold and there’s no better target for both of those than Arenado (especially with a .395 OBP and 1.101 OPS hitting fourth). Colorado and the Cardinals have reportedly discussed player names in a Nolan Arenado deal, asking for a mix of major league players and at least one top prospect, with St. Louis starter Dakota Hudson named, along with potentially Matt Carpenter and at least one of the Cardinals’ top-four minor leaguers. In an interview with MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, his colleague Mark Bowman threw out a package of Ian Anderson, Drew Waters, Ender Inciarte and Jasseel De La Cruz. I’ll throw this out there: if the Braves swooped in with Mike Foltynewicz, Austin Riley, Inciarte and Kyle Wright (35th on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, higher than every Cardinals’ prospect except outfielder Dylan Carlson at 24th) doesn’t that get it done? The Rockies would have a proven MLB starter and one that’s all but ready to go in Wright, a potential long-term answer at third with Arenado gone, and a Gold Glove a center fielder to man that spacious Coors Field grass in Inciarte. From a money standpoint, Arenado would be on the books through 2026 and he’s due $35 million the next five seasons, a considerable jump from the $19 million Ozuna is expected to command and the $14 AAV on and it’s counter to the Braves letting Donaldson go for an average of $13 million less. But we’re talking about a seven-time Gold Glove winner, five-time All-Star and four-time Silver Slugger winner, popping out five-WAR seasons like he’s a PEZ dispenser, and he’s just 28 years old (six years younger than Donaldson). The opt-out after 2021 is a concern that would need alleviated before he’s acquired, but if the Braves are going to deal from their depth to get a difference-maker, this would be the moment, and this would be the player.

3. Will Astros, Mets or Red Sox come calling for Ron Washington?

With the Astros firing manager A.J. Hinch (along with GM Jeff Luhnow) after their one-year suspensions in the sign-stealing scandal, the Red Sox following suit with manager Alex Cora and the Mets and Carlos Beltran mutually agreeing to part ways, that puts three bench jobs open with less than a month to go before pitchers and catchers report. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker managed to keep his staff intact so far, that despite Ron Washington interviewing with the Padres for the job that unproven Jayce Tingler would eventually take. But if one of these franchises is looking for an easy fix to help their shaken culture and immediately command respect, they’ll come calling for Washington, the former Rangers skipper. The third base coach/infield guru has been beloved by the Braves players and his work heralded in molding the likes of Albies and Dansby Swanson. It’s not just lip service either, with players lining up for early work with Washington and his flat glove routine. It would be a rough run for the clubhouse and a fanbase after the Donaldson departure, but Washington has earned his second chance.

4. Braves, Shane Greene to enter dicey territory with impending hearing

The Braves and Shane Greene are likely heading to an arbitration hearing sometime between Feb. 3-21 after the team submitted at $6.75 million and the team $6.25 million. A gap of $500,000 would seem easy enough to find a middle ground, but Atlanta’s file-and-trial approach (barring a multiyear deal) means it’s highly unlikely. This will be Greene’s first hearing, as he avoided going before the three-person panels with the Tigers in 2018 and ‘19, and with the expectation that the team wins, given the right-handed reliever’s lack of consistency — a 5.12 ERA and minus-0-.1 fWAR in ‘18 to 2.30 and 0.9, respectively last season — it’s bound to be dicey and potentially ugly territory. Anthopoulos has said he views the process from this end: both sides think the player deserves a raise, it’s just a matter of how much of one, but the fact is, it’s not that simple for the player. It’s a tough situation to hear you’re not worth what you think you are, one that Trevor Bauer likened to “character assassination” when he and the Indians went to a hearing before last season. Mike Foltynewicz was rankled in 2018 when a lawyer was present to argue the team’s case (which they won) instead of the GM or a member of his staff when they went to arbitration over a mere $100,000, the smallest gap since 1994. To make matters worse, the panel sided with the team, and it all had the starting pitcher upset when he arrived at spring training. How the fiery Greene handles it, and whether the team alters its course after the impression the ‘18 hearing left on Foltynewicz, it will be worth watching. This will be the fifth time Atlanta has gone to hearing since 2001, following Andruw Jones, Kevin Millwood, and John Rocker in ‘01 and Mike Minor in 15. The Braves are 2-2 in those cases, winning against Millwood and Rocker.

5. Truist Park (and a dose of reality) it is

The mergers of SunTrust and BB&T banks led to an expected name change for three-year old SunTrust Park and the result was ... well, expected. The Braves unveiled the Truist Park moniker in a ceremony Tuesday, and now comes the fun part: changing out about 150 signs that need to be replaced, a process that will go into the season. There was a fan push to take the opportunity to call it “Hank Aaron Field at Truist Park,” a fitting tribute for an icon that would have been a nice touch, and there’s even multiple online petitions (see here and here) on Change.org for it (there is also one where a kid is trying to get enough signatures to get a mullet, so ...). But given a 25-year deal (with 22 to go) that pays about $10 million per year, that was a great idea that runs up against reality. This is an advertising play with return on investment every time someone says the stadium’s name and adding Aaron’s name to it would have diminished the value for the rights.

6. Acuña can dunk ... and rile some folks up at the same time

Ronald Acuña Jr. is ridiculously athletic. You might even say he’s pheñomeñally athletic (wink, wink), and you can add dunking to his list of feats to go along with the MLB-best 53 leadoff homers he’s hit since he burst onto the big-league scene in 2018. The Braves outfielder put on a show in a basketball game with a pair of throwdowns captured by @CbestFIBA on Twitter. Of course, it didn’t take long for the Fun Police to show up, with certain members of Braves Twitter criticizing Acuña for putting himself at risk for an injury, and to be fair, we don’t know whether his contract includes a clause that says he can’t play basketball. But ... he’s 22 years old, and, as much as we ask (even beg) players to not specialize as youth, why freak out over his having some fun? As a kid, we used to watch the Cincinnati Reds play our local fire/police departments and there was future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin dunking with ease. Lighten up and let him show off that insane athleticism.

7. You asked for it, and Braves did open the checkbook

No matter what happens (or doesn’t) at third base or in the outfield, and regardless of what happens with Greene in arbitration, this team is already going to make franchise history. The current payroll of $130 million would be a franchise record to open a season. That’s the good news for those who have been pining for more spending and it’s a positive that with payroll already at a record level ... but is it enough? Just one of the last four World Series champs (the Astros in their now asterisk-accompanied 2017 run) had an Opening Day payroll under $172 million.

8. A quick Tim Hudson story

Tim Hudson is back in baseball, joining his alma mater Auburn as pitching coach under Butch Thompson. Hudson was an All-American and SEC Player of the Year while suiting up on The Plains before going on to becoming a four-time All-Star in a 17-year career that included nine with the Braves. He was also a noted prankster, who once filled Adam LaRoche’s glove with feces and pranked Eddie Perez by jumping out of a closet wearing the costume of the killer from ‘Scream’ (something yours truly did to a former girlfriend circa 1998). But in a far tamer Hudson story, he recounted during an interview for my book ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout,’ that after Jeff Francoeur had appeared on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ with the headline “The Natural,” the veteran took one of the young outfielder’s bats and drew a lightning bolt on it with the name “Roy Hobbs” and made Francoeur take batting practice with it. This is what Auburn’s pitchers are getting, along with one helluva mind for the game, who has been trending toward this turn after stints as a spring training instructor for the Braves and Giants in recent years.

9. It’s your day, Brooks Conrad!

It’s Brooks Conrad’s 39th birthday, all the more reason on a tough week to rewatch his pinch-hit, ninth-inning grand slam that completed an eight-run comeback, the largest in franchise history on May 20, 2010. He’s just one of just eight players in history with at least eight home runs in under 210 plate appearances off the bench with an average under .200, a list that included Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. So on his birthday, sit back and celebrate by enjoying Brooks Conrad being crazy clutch.