The deal that brought Josh Donaldson to Toronto this week in 2014 worked out about as well as Alex Anthopoulos could have hoped.
As an opening act, Donaldson led the Blue Jays back to the playoffs with a 41-homer, MVP season. He nearly sustained that level of production with a 7.5-win season in 2016 and a strong if abbreviated 2017. Even though injuries would eventually sideline him for most of 2018, there’s no doubt that the acquisition of Donaldson for Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin was an overwhelming success.
Four years later, Anthopoulos has acquired Donaldson a second time, this time on a one-year, $23 million contract with the Atlanta Braves, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. Once again, the deal has the potential to become a big win for Anthopoulos.
First and foremost, the Braves are getting a player with considerable offensive ability. Donaldson posted an .801 OPS last year, when shoulder and calf injuries limited him to 52 games, but there’s reason to believe he can bounce back offensively. The typically conservative Steamer projections at FanGraphs forecast a .257/.366/.485 batting line with 27 home runs and 4.6 wins above replacement for Donaldson in 2019.
Just two position players are projected for more WAR next year: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Clearly, neither of those players will be available for a total of $23 million.
Granted, Machado and Harper are far younger than Donaldson, who turns 33 next month. At 26 years old, those players may still be entering their prime seasons while Donaldson’s exiting his. Plus, Machado and Harper are seemingly better bets to remain healthy, especially considering that calf injuries have sidelined Donaldson for considerable stretches in each of the past two seasons.
But by accepting that risk, the Braves add Donaldson to a lineup that already includes Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. On paper, that looks like a substantial upgrade over Johan Camargo, who can now slide into a utility role and serve as insurance should Donaldson’s injuries return.
It was just a few months ago that Donaldson cleared August waivers while earning $23 million– an indication that no team valued him at that salary at the time. In that context, it’s hardly surprising that the Blue Jays’ return was limited to a player to be named later, right-handed pitcher Julian Merryweather. But Donaldson’s strong finish at the plate (.920 OPS with Cleveland) and visibly improved defence restored that value to the point that a National League team believes in his offence and defence.
While it’s not the huge payday some envisioned for Donaldson, it’s possible to see how this deal could work for him, too. In the short-term he joins a contender and doesn’t take a pay cut. With a strong season in 2019, Donaldson could theoretically sign an even more substantial contract next off-season. He’ll be turning 34 at that point, and teams are increasingly hesitant to commit long-term to players over 30, but a vintage season in Atlanta would create lots of demand for high-salary deals even if they’re limited in duration.
In the meantime, the Braves could be getting a real bargain. For context, teams spending $18-28 million last off-season landed middle relief with deals for Mike Minor ($28 million), Bryan Shaw ($27 million), Jake McGee ($27 million), Brandon Morrow ($21 million) and Tommy Hunter ($18 million). None of those pitchers has the potential to impact a season the way Donaldson can.
As Blue Jays fans know first-hand, that same logic applied to Jose Bautista when he signed a one-year, $18 million dollar deal ahead of the 2017 season. It was a good decision yet it simply didn’t work out, and there are scenarios where the Donaldson deal ends up working just as poorly for the Braves.
With that in mind, there’s definitely no guarantee that this will be money well spent in Atlanta. There never is in free agency. Usually, though, there’s lots of long-term risk required to land a player of Donaldson’s calibre. That doesn’t exist here, and for that reason it’s far easier to imagine the path where both Josh Donaldson deals go down as successes for Anthopoulos.