Where will Braves turn for 3B, middle of lineup?

January 15th, 2020

ATLANTA -- Now that Josh Donaldson has opted to play for the Twins, the Braves must find a way to compensate for his absence from the middle of their lineup.

Donaldson has agreed to a four-year, $92 million deal with Twins, a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand. The deal includes a $16 million ($8 million buyout) option for 2024 and could be worth $104 million if all escalators and options are exercised.

The average annual value of this deal is $23 million, which matches what Donaldson received with the one-year deal he signed with Atlanta last winter.

Specifics of the Braves’ offer have not been revealed. But given it seemed Donaldson wanted to remain in Atlanta, the financial specifics of his agreement create reason to doubt the Braves made a four-year offer to the 34-year-old third baseman.

If nothing else, it's possible Atlanta may have made an offer that included a significantly reduced salary in the fourth season.

Whatever the case, the Braves must find a way to replace Donaldson, who belted 37 homers and produced a .900 OPS in 2019. His MVP-caliber production in the cleanup spot over the season’s final four months significantly enhanced the value created by Atlanta’s first three hitters -- Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman.

Here’s a look at what the Braves might do:

Filling the void at third base: General manager Alex Anthopoulos has repeatedly said he was seeking a power bat, not necessarily a third baseman when he signed Donaldson last winter. fared well as the team’s everyday third baseman in 2018 and he may regain that role at that start of the 2020 season. But if were to get back to where he was last year, when he homered in 14 of his first 161 career at-bats, they would have a third baseman capable of providing plus power.

Trade for Nolan Arenado: The 28-year-old third baseman is owed $244 million ($34.4 million per season) over the next seven seasons, but he can opt out of his contract after 2021. Before committing to this kind of salary and parting ways with the strong prospect package the Rockies would demand, the Braves would seemingly need Arenado to remove the opt-out from his contract. The cost would be steep in terms of dollars and prospects. But the return could also prove quite significant for many years to come.

Trade for Starling Marte: Pirates outfielder Starling Marte would be a less costly trade option. His contract includes a $11.5 million salary for 2020 and a $12.5 million option ($1 million buyout) for 2021. The 31-year-old outfielder hit 23 homers and had a .845 OPS last year. Unlike free agent outfielders Marcell Ozuna or Nicholas Castellanos, Marte would be a short-term option who would not block top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters.

Sign Marcell Ozuna or Nicholas Castellanos: Looking at Statcast’s Outfield Outs Above Average, Castellanos (-7) and Ozuna (-8) both rank as below-average defenders. But given the Braves are currently planning to give Nick Markakis (-2 OAA) a majority of their outfield at-bats, there’s reason to look at both of these free agents, who would provide more power than the projected left-field platoon of Markakis and Adam Duvall.

If the Braves were to sign either Ozuna or Castellanos, they would alter their plans for Markakis and Duvall, both of whom could be used as backup outfielders.

Trade for a front-line starting pitcher: If the Braves were to trade for Marte or make a similar financial commitment to their offense, they would still have the flexibility necessary to strengthen their rotation with a front-line starter. Even with the addition of a big bat, there’s reason to argue there’s a need to bolster a rotation that is currently anchored by 22-year-old Mike Soroka.