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Inbox: How will Braves fill Donaldson void?

Beat reporter Mark Bowman answers questions from fans
January 17, 2020

If the Braves fail to add another bat before Spring Training, will you declare this offseason a failure? -- @pushermanRL If the primary need of any task is not addressed, I think you can justifiably consider the venture to be unsuccessful. In fairness, it would not be fair to use

If the Braves fail to add another bat before Spring Training, will you declare this offseason a failure?
-- @pushermanRL

If the primary need of any task is not addressed, I think you can justifiably consider the venture to be unsuccessful. In fairness, it would not be fair to use the word failure until we see the regular-season results. But without the addition of a power bat, there would certainly be reason to be disappointed and far less optimistic than you likely were when the flurry of additions were made during the offseason’s first month.

Once the Braves signed Will Smith (three years, $40 million), Travis d'Arnaud (two years, $16 million) and Cole Hamels (one year, $18 million), there was reason to believe they would remain aggressive in their pursuit of a power hitter. There was also reason to say many of these dollars would go to waste without the satisfaction of this primary need.

Who might Braves pursue to replace Donaldson?

There is still time to address this need, and there’s a chance any acquisition would prove to be more prudent and valuable than giving Josh Donaldson the four-year deal he was seeking. But if Atlanta does not defend its National League East crown, or at least advance to the postseason, there will be reason to question some of the moves made this offseason -- especially the Hamels signing.

Given the definitive need for a catcher, giving d’Arnaud an $8 million salary can be deemed just normal business. Providing Smith $13 million over each of the next three seasons has the potential to provide long-term benefits to the bullpen. But anything short of a return to the postseason may force the team to do some creative itemizing in attempt to justify the large salary given to Hamels.

With this being said, the upgrades of the bullpen and the rotation have the Braves stronger than they were heading into 2018 when they won the NL East with Nick Markakis as their cleanup hitter. Still, the inability to add a power hitter will lessen the optimism created at the start of this offseason and create reason to doubt Atlanta’s ability to finally once again taste October success, which is far sweeter than offseason success.

Do you think the Braves were sitting on their hands during the Josh Donaldson saga or have they been negotiating with other teams/players while waiting on JD? If so, who?
-- @mikebooks1

There were always doubts about whether the Braves would make a four-year offer to the 34-year-old Donaldson, and the result seemingly proved they certainly were never comfortable aggressively committing to him for this length of time. He did seem to be the perfect fit from an immediate standpoint, and his return would have obviously erased that primary need. But we aren’t privy to the medical information and opinions of those who have worked with a player on a daily basis over the course of an entire season.

Two years from now, you might still be saying the Braves should have re-signed Donaldson. Four years from now, you might be saying they dodged a bullet. As much as I would have liked to have seen him back in Atlanta, I recognize that the max-effort quality that makes him so uniquely valuable should also have been seen as the primary detriment to providing a long-term deal to a guy his age.

Given they were in control of how this saga was going to end, I believe the Braves spent the past couple weeks assuming Donaldson wouldn’t return. Thus, they have continued to evaluate both the free-agent (Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos) and trade markets (Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant), anticipating the need to go a different direction.

What direction do you see the Braves going after not being able to retain Donaldson?
-- @FourFourHipHop

The Braves’ interest in Kris Bryant has seemed minimal, at best, over the past couple months, and ultimately, I don’t think the Rockies will trade Nolan Arenado. If looking at the free-agent outfielders, Marcell Ozuna seems to be a better option than Nicholas Castellanos. But signing Ozuna feels like it might put general manager Alex Anthopoulos in a position where he was in 2012, when he signed Francisco Cordero despite not highly valuing him at the start of the offseason.

Trading for Starling Marte might be the most attractive option. The 31-year-old Pirates outfielder would be cheaper than the other options in terms of prospects and dollars. Plus, as he progresses through the last guaranteed season of his contract, his value could be enhanced by the opportunity to bat behind the trio of Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman.

My expectation is that the Braves will fill this void with an outfielder, then make necessary adjustments to account for the roles Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall might fill. With top prospect Cristian Pache on the horizon, there may be reason to also attempt to trade Ender Inciarte.

Anthopoulos could go a few different directions. His decisions will likely be influenced by the possibility that Austin Riley could eventually become the everyday third baseman and possibly resume the promise he created during the first six weeks of his career.

Do you think the Braves' rotation, as constituted, is good enough to repeat as East champs?
-- @Neil2035761

Yeah, I think Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried showed enough at the end of the season to believe at least one of them is capable of becoming the legit No. 2 starter that the rotation lacks. I do have concerns about the fact that the Braves said Hamels’ four-inning stint against the Cardinals on Sept. 28 was enough to give them confidence about his left shoulder. But at the same time, I recognize other medical tests were performed before the signing. The bullpen’s strong depth will also strengthen the potential value of this rotation, which could be much stronger if Kyle Wright starts to live up to his tremendous potential this year.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for since 2001.