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Starting Nine: Delay in Josh Donaldson’s decision, other suitors’ pursuits make return inevitable

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Plus, will disgraced GM John Coppolella have company on baseball’s blacklist?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
The Braves have been joined in the pursuit of Josh Donaldson by the Nationals, Rangers and Twins, but all have shown signs of lessened interest.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome into the Starting Nine, your weekly rundown of topics both Braves and Braves-adjacent. Some weeks we’ll run through a buffet of topics, some we’ll take a more singular focus, but for this first installment, there’s no better way to start than with the subject that’s had Atlanta fans on edge since season’s end.

1. Any day now, Bringer of Rain

The wait continues for free-agent Josh Donaldson to pick his destination, and while it’s been painstaking for Braves Country (check Twitter, and you’ll see no shortage of daily pleas and prayers for his return), the longer this thing goes on, it has to point toward a return to Atlanta, right? The Braves were said to be joined by the Nationals, Rangers and Twins in the pursuit of the third baseman, with an asking price of four years, $110 million. Washington has at least appeared to have all but moved on with Starlin Castro, Eric Thames stepping in and Asdrubal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick returning; Minnesota is believed to have offered a deal around $85 million for four years and has -- per The Athletic’s Dan Hayes and Aaron Gleeman -- been exploring trade options, with the hot corner included in those talks; and the Rangers may be bringing in Todd Frazier at third. This all reeks of Donaldson using the other suitors to push the Braves to meet his asking price, though they’re not reported to have the top deal. The belief here is that the Nationals are offering the most total money, but they have a history of offering contracts with deferred money (which ultimately cost them Anthony Rendon) and at $8 million short of the luxury tax threshold, deferring money may be their only option, but it’s unlikely Donaldson would be looking for a deal with less actual value than the amount he signs for. The relationship with general manager Alex Anthopoulos was always working in the Braves’ favor — along with that of trainer George Poulis, who was also in Toronto with Donaldson and who the third baseman has raved about — and his comfort in playing in Atlanta. Frankly, if Donaldson wanted top dollar elsewhere and the Braves weren’t offering it, he would have signed elsewhere already. We’re getting to the point where this may be more a battle of wills than a battle of contenders for his services. There appears to be only one way this ends: with the Bringer of Rain back in Atlanta. It’s just a matter of when.

2. Coppy’s fate await those in Astros’ (and maybe Red Sox’s) scandal?

Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t hesitate to make an example out of the Braves when it came to a practice that they weren’t alone in, banning former general manager John Coppolella in 2017 for bundling signing bonuses for international players (the Red sox, meanwhile, were given just a one-year ban on signings). Is Manfred about to do it again and give the GM company on the black list? The commish is reportedly nearing a decision on punishment for the Astros for sign-stealing -- a concept as old as time -- but after Manfred sent a letter to teams in 2017 (following sanctions against the Red Sox for use of an Apple Watch), the use of technology in these efforts, and the lengths Houston went to were akin to a middle finger to MLB. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported the likes of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow could be penalized, but not the players themselves. To top it off, the Red Sox are back in the crosshairs with allegations they used the video replay room illegally during the 2018 World Series. International signing protocols are confusing enough for the layfan or the general media to care, but impacting the actual product on the field? It would be stunning if Manfred doesn’t follow what he did with Coppolella with individuals from potentially both teams, and somewhat damning to his regime if he doesn’t.

3. Ozzie has heady company

Ozzie Albies turned 22 on Tuesday, and @MLBStats gave him a graphic treatment that showed the man with the gold palm tree chain is off to an insane start to his career. His 9.9 Baseball Reference WAR is the third best in history for a second baseman through their age-22 season, putting him only behind Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Eddie Collins. Albies is already ahead of a number of players in Cooperstown at this stage, including Joe Morgan (9.1), Bill Mazeroski (8.7) and Paul Molitor (8.4). Oh, and he has just five fewer homers (54) than Alomar and Collins through age-22 combined.

4. Andruw Jones’ HOF bid improving, but only slightly

Not that anyone expected Andruw Jones to go from appearing on 7.5 percent of ballots in 2018 to getting the 75 percent required for Hall of Fame induction this year, but it is looking slightly better. The 10-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star is up to 27.5 percent on Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker (on @NotMrTibbs on Twitter if you’re living under a rock), all but guaranteeing the former Braves center fielder will have well beyond the 5 percent threshold to stay on the ballot in 2021. But is he any closer to enshrinement? Ralph Kiner at least gives hope to those who started slow, receiving just 1.1 percent of the vote in 1960 (his first year of eligibility) and got in in 1971 at 75.3 percent. But today’s rules, though, he would have fallen off in each of his first five years. That Omar Vizquel, seen as another defensive wizard who didn’t have nearly the offensive impact as Jones is nearly 20 percent higher (46.5 percent in Year 3, same as Jones) continues to be mind-boggling. Entry via the Era Committees still seems Jones’ best bet, but at least he’s trending upward.

5. Clock is ticking toward arbitration hearings

In 2018, Alex Anthopoulos’ first offseason at the helm, the Braves went to an arbitration hearing with Mike Foltynewicz -- and won -- and last winter avoided the process with their 10 eligible players. Sides have until Friday to exchange salary figures with Mike Foltyewicz, Dansby Swanson, Shane Greene, Johan Camargo, Adam Duvall, Luke Jackson and Grant Dayton and Atlanta, long a “file and trial” team when it comes to the process will only renegotiate if it means a multi-year deal. But if the Braves are going to go back to a hearing in 2020, Greene would certainly seem the most likely given the the drop off he saw going from the Tigers (1.18 ERA and 10.2 K/9) and Braves (4.01 and 7.7 K/9) and a projected $6.5 million in arbitration that would put him equal to Kirby Yates and Sean Doolittle.

6. Who made the best bullpen addition?

The Braves (Will Smith), the Mets (Dellin Betances) and Nationals (Will Harris) all bolstered their bullpens on the free-agent market (and the Phillies might have if they end up using former Atlanta catcher and sometimes reliever Christian Bethancourt), but who added the best relief arm? The question may have three different answers. Smith, with a 1.2 fWAR in 2019 and 2.0 in ‘18 -- fifth-best in the NL in that span -- has been the most consistent, Harris -- despite his last two appearances in an Astros uniform -- answers that with a 2.36 ERA in his five seasons that’s the American League’s fifth-best since 2015. But the Mets adding Betances has to be the most intriguing. After all, he’s not that far removed from a 1.40 ERA in 2014 and 1.50 a year later, and going back to his first full season of 2014, is third in fWAR at 11.3 behind only Aroldis Chapman (13.4) and Kenley Jansen (11.8). Is he healthy after injuries that limited him to one appearance for the Yankees in ‘19? If so, the Mets’ move has the biggest upside.

7. Is this pitch the key to Minter’s revival?

Speaking of bullpens, when he came back from an August demotion to Triple-A, A.J. Minter told me he’d used the opportunity to work on his changeup -- something he was reluctant to do at the major league level -- and in his last two outings, he threw it 44 and 30 percent, the highest percentages in back-to-back games all season. Is making that pitch a bigger complement to his fastball/cutter offerings the key to a return? Minter’s changeup was equal in value -- 1.2 weighted runs above average -- to his cutter in 2019, offsetting a fastball that was at minus-6.4. But first, he’ll just have to crack a loaded bullpen that may only have one or a maximum of two spots up for grabs.

8. Touki and Braxton living it up in Bahamas

In example No. 3,399,199 of baseball players having it better than 99.9 percent of us, Braxton Davidson and Touki Toussaint were in the Bahamas for an MLB Play Ball initiative that included Davidson launching homers into the ocean in a beachside home run derby. Here’s Davidson and Team Fox celebrating their win.

9. Olympics-bound? Maybe not

Justin Verlander perpetuated the “pitchers aren’t athletes” stigma in the World Series, when he managed to throw a ball off his leg (and drew Yu Darvish’s ire in the process), Jerry Blevins has come to the defense of arms everywhere. The free-agent reliever, who had a 3.90 ERA in 32 1/3 innings over 45 appearances last season, took to Twitter to show off his high-jump skills. While he cleared the bar with ease, the former track athlete in me would like to point out it’s an illegal two-foot takeoff, but the hair did look sensational.