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One last missing piece for Braves: Power hitter

@mlbbowman
December 5, 2019

ATLANTA -- Even though the Braves have been far more active than any other club so far this winter, the potential value of the more than $90 million they have committed to free agents will not be maximized unless their most pressing need for a power hitter is addressed. By

ATLANTA -- Even though the Braves have been far more active than any other club so far this winter, the potential value of the more than $90 million they have committed to free agents will not be maximized unless their most pressing need for a power hitter is addressed.

By adding Will Smith (three years, $40 million) and re-signing both Chris Martin (two years, $14 million) and Darren O'Day (one year, $2.75 million), Atlanta has formed what could be a very strong bullpen.

By signing Cole Hamels (one year, $18 million), the Braves have added prime experience to a rotation whose success will still be dictated by the progress made by Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Mike Foltynewicz.

But this improved bullpen and stabilized rotation still needs support from a top-heavy lineup that currently lacks the additional thump Josh Donaldson so valuably provided while batting behind Freddie Freeman for most of last season.

Re-signing Donaldson remains a priority. But while there is always hope for a quick resolution, the 2015 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner may opt to wait and see what the Rangers, Dodgers, Nationals or other potential suitors are willing to offer after fellow third baseman Anthony Rendon lands his expected mega deal.

Given that there have to be contingency plans, here are three options to acquire that much-needed power threat.

1. Re-sign Donaldson

As the Braves produced the National League’s second-best record (79-45) from May 10 through the end of the season, their Weighted Runs Created Plus leaders were Freeman (139), Donaldson (133), Ronald Acuña Jr. (128) and Ozzie Albies (120). Nick Markakis ranked fifth (minimum 200 plate appearances) with a below-average 91 WRC+.

The Braves’ projected lineup begins with Acuña, Albies and Freeman. This trio has the potential to be the game’s best group of Nos. 1-3 hitters. But the potential value of their production will be diminished unless Atlanta addresses the fact it does not have a true No. 4 or No. 5 hitter, excluding those days when Adam Duvall starts against a left-handed pitcher.

This need would be satisfied by re-signing Donaldson, who provided Gold Glove-caliber defense while re-establishing himself as one of the game’s top offensive threats. There’s mutual interest in a reunion, but the soon-to-be 34-year-old third baseman’s future might be determined by which team is willing to provide the best four-year offer, or at least sweeten the dollars attached to a three-year deal.

2. Trade for Bryant

While Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts will continue to create a lot of trade buzz, there are some within the industry who doubt whether those clubs will receive the kind of significant return needed to justify dealing any of them.

But when you’ve committed as much as the Braves already have this offseason, and you have a prospect pool as rich as Atlanta’s, you at least have to take a serious look at the possibility of landing one of these stars.

If Donaldson ends up elsewhere, the best fit would be Bryant, especially if his pending service-time grievance results in an arbitrator ruling that he will not be a free agent until after the 2021 season. Two years of Bryant might cost the Braves righty Foltynewicz, either the club’s No. 2 prospect Drew Waters or No. 3 prospect Ian Anderson and a second-level pitching prospect.

But in exchange, they could get two prime years of the 2016 NL MVP Award winner, who would be capable of softening the loss of Donaldson in the lineup and at third base.

3. Sign or trade for an outfielder

With Mike Moustakas off the board and Rendon likely to exceed Atlanta’s desired spending level, there are no other viable options among free-agent third basemen. The outfield market is also quite thin, but it does at least possess two power threats in Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos.

Ozuna may never again match the success he had in 2017, when he won a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Award. Castellanos significantly strengthened his resume as he spent this season’s last two months with the Cubs. While neither is a plus defender, both are capable of providing at least 25 homers. The question is whether either would provide more than the Braves would already have from sticking with platooning Markakis and Duvall in left field.

Another option would be to trade for the Pirates’ Starling Marte. But the career-best .845 OPS Marte produced this year matches what the duo of Markakis and Duvall could provide.

Markakis, who would draw most of the plate appearances in this platoon, produced a .841 OPS before fracturing his left wrist on July 26. Duvall spent most of the year at Triple-A Gwinnett, but he had a 1.130 OPS in 44 plate appearances against big league left-handers. He has produced a .842 OPS against southpaws since the start of 2017.

If the Braves were to go the outfield route, they would be committing to using Johan Camargo as their third baseman, at least until Austin Riley shows he’s ready to return to the Majors. Even if Camargo bounces back, he can’t provide what Donaldson did with the bat or glove in 2019.

So while there is certainly a need to have contingency plans, it appears the best way for the Braves to cap this potentially rewarding offseason is to make one more significant commitment and provide their fans a chance to further develop the strong bond they have already created with Donaldson.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.