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Could Donaldson decision be reached soon?

@mlbbowman
January 7, 2020

ATLANTA -- Though offseason projections are often tarnished by the inevitable unpredictability of the regular season, it seems safe to predict Josh Donaldson’s decision will significantly influence the National League East race in each of the next four seasons. The Braves and Nationals still appear to be the favorites to

ATLANTA -- Though offseason projections are often tarnished by the inevitable unpredictability of the regular season, it seems safe to predict Josh Donaldson’s decision will significantly influence the National League East race in each of the next four seasons.

The Braves and Nationals still appear to be the favorites to land Donaldson, who is seeking a four-year deal worth at least $100 million. The Twins have been in the mix, but their hopes have become pessimistic, according to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune report published on Monday.

The Rangers have appeared to turn their attention elsewhere, and they may now attempt to sign Todd Frazier to fill their need for a third baseman. There’s still a chance that the Dodgers could become a player. But MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand has reported that the Braves, Nationals and Twins are the only teams to have extended a four-year offer.

Financial specifics of the offers are not known. But the Twins’ pessimism suggests an unwillingness to approach the $110 million offer Donaldson is seeking. If the Nationals have come close to satisfying the third baseman’s financial wish, there’s certainly reason to believe their offer includes deferrals similar to what they have included in deals for many of their top players over the past decade.

So why has a decision not been made?

Some industry sources doubt the Braves have come close to making what stands as the top offer. All things being equal, it has been assumed Donaldson would return to Atlanta. At the same time, the 2015 American League Most Valuable Player Award winner has the right to continue waiting with the hope that he will eventually get what he is seeking.

The Nationals have recently signed three veteran infielders -- Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Eric Thames. This trio, combined with Howie Kendrick and possibly Ryan Zimmerman, gives the reigning world champions plenty of corner-infield options. But even with their projected luxury tax payroll now slightly above $200 million -- $8 million below the penalty threshold – the Nats have indicated that they are still hopeful to land Donaldson.

Regardless of whether the Nationals are still truly in the mix or just attempting to continue bargaining against the Braves, the fact remains that Atlanta has not yet satisfied Donaldson’s wish.

Throughout this bargaining process, there have been questions about whether the Braves would be willing to make a four-year offer to the 34-year-old Donaldson, who hit 37 homers with a .900 OPS for Atlanta last year.

Donaldson was undoubtedly one of the game’s greatest players during the 2010s. But the question is whether he’ll continue to be elite like Chipper Jones was in his later 30s or experience the kind of regression that would create buyer’s remorse.

Along with projecting how Donaldson might perform during these years, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos must also evaluate the payroll fit. Atlanta has the financial flexibility necessary to sign Donaldson this year and push its 2020 payroll close to $160 million.

Donaldson would also comfortably fit in 2021, when Cole Hamels and Mark Melancon will both come off the books. But it’s more pressing to look at how this contract might fit over what would be the final two years of the deal.

At some point before the end of the 2021 season, there’s reason to believe the Braves will extend Freddie Freeman at an average annual value of slightly more than $25 million. In '22, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s salary will jump from $5 million to $15 million, and both Mike Soroka and Max Fried will be entering their second arbitration-eligible seasons.

Acuña and Ozzie Albies, who will make $5 million in 2022, will almost certainly still be considered big bargains at that point, and the developments of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and other top prospects could further strengthen the club’s long-term financial flexibility. But these projections, especially the uncertain ones tagged to arbitration-eligible players, have to be accounted for before making the kind of four-year deal Donaldson is seeking.

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