Braves weigh impact of Strasburg on Donaldson

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- Asked about Stephen Strasburg’s decision to remain with the Nationals, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos gave the standard “We really strictly focus on ourselves” response that has long been provided by executives in regard to significant moves made by division rivals.

But the Strasburg deal is different given the likelihood it will affect the market for Josh Donaldson, who remains the Braves’ top target as they continue their pursuit of a legitimate power threat for the middle of their lineup.

With Monday’s decision to sign Strasburg to a record seven-year, $245 million deal, the Nationals created reason to wonder whether they can afford to also re-sign Anthony Rendon, who stands with Donaldson as this year’s top two free agent third basemen. Strasburg will make an average of $35 million per season, but $11.4 million will be deferred on an annual basis throughout the lifetime of the contract.

Maybe these deferrals create enough flexibility for the Nats to ink Rendon, whose deal is also expected to have an average annual value of at least $30 million. But if the Nationals opt to go in a different direction, they could join the Phillies, Rangers and Dodgers looking to prevent Donaldson from returning to Atlanta.

There’s no doubt the Braves place a significant value on Donaldson, who proved to be worth every penny of the one-year, $23 million deal he signed with Atlanta last winter. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be reunited with the 34-year-old former MVP, who might end up getting a four-year deal.

Given that Donaldson is coming off a season during which he hit 37 homers, produced 132 Weighted Runs Created Plus and led National League third basemen with 15 Defensive Runs Saved, it’s assumed he will end up with at least a three-year guarantee. His age creates concern, especially for NL teams, about a guaranteed fourth season.

But NL clubs could at least gamble on the possibility of adopting the designated hitter with the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which would be put in place after the 2021 season.

“I think it’s safe to say we’d like to do something for the middle of the order,” Anthopoulos said. “I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to accomplish that.”

In other words, if the Braves do not re-sign Donaldson, they could replace his power by acquiring an outfielder and using Johan Camargo as their third baseman. They could also continue to explore the possibility of trading for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant or Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, both of whom could be controlled for two seasons. Bryant would likely not be a possibility if he wins his service-time grievance and ends up being eligible for free agency after 2020.

There would be some hesitance to meet the steep demands that would be required to acquire either of these MVP-caliber players. There’s also some uncertainty about how much either would cost in 2021, which would be their final arbitration-eligible seasons.

But given the aggression the Braves have already shown in signing Will Smith, Cole Hamels and Travis d’Arnaud, they may need to exceed their comfort zone for Donaldson, Bryant or Lindor to successfully cap what has already been a very active and productive offseason.

“Generally speaking, the less control you’re getting back in a trade, it’s going to impact what you’re willing to give up,” Anthopoulos said. “If you feel like it’s the last piece, you might stretch a little more.”