ATLANTA -- As this past summer progressed, many of the same fans who had questioned the Braves committing $23 million to Josh Donaldson were lobbying for the former American League MVP Award winner to return to Atlanta.
Time will tell whether Donaldson will return as the Braves’ third baseman again next year. There is mutual interest in extending what proved to be a great relationship. But the 33-year-old’s success this year has earned him the chance to enter the free-agent market as a hot commodity, who will draw multiple multiyear lucrative offers.
“I know that being around these guys each and every day, it was a joy,” Donaldson said. “As a ballplayer, you live for teams like this. We all fed off each other, and it was fun to be a part of.”
Donaldson’s energetic presence influenced much of the joy the Braves experienced during a 97-win season that netted a second straight National League East title and then concluded unceremoniously with an NL Division Series loss to the Cardinals.
“The guys feed off of him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “As soon as he gets in that dugout before every game it's like an explosion when he comes up the tunnel.”
Here’s a look back at Donaldson’s 2019 season:
What went right
Coming off two consecutive injury-plagued seasons, Donaldson played 155 games and started 109 of Atlanta’s last 112 regular-season games. Had teams known he would be this healthy and durable, he would not have had to settle for a one-year deal last winter.
The $23 million gamble the Braves took with this one-year deal proved to be a bargain. Donaldson ranked 10th in the NL with a 4.9 fWAR (Fangraphs’ WAR Model). He hit .259 with 37 homers and a .900 OPS. He joined top AL MVP candidates Mike Trout and Alex Bregman as the only players to hit 35 homers and draw 100 walks this season.
Donaldson got off to a slow start, hitting just .236 with nine homers and a .769 OPS through June 13 (65 games). But over the remainder of the season, he ranked third among NL players in home runs (28) and OPS (.994).
Along with proving he remains one of the game’s top offensive threats, Donaldson provided Gold Glove-caliber defense. He easily led NL third basemen with 15 Defensive Runs Saved. The Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the D-backs’ Eduardo Escobar ranked second with 8 DRS.
“He strengthened our club, and quite frankly, he's one of the best third basemen I've ever been around,” Snitker said.
What went wrong
During most of the season’s first two months, the Braves carefully handled Donaldson by attempting to give him a day off on a weekly basis. The veteran third baseman expressed his displeasure while the team was nearing the end of a four-game series in San Francisco near the end of May.
Confident the calf issues that had plagued Donaldson the previous two years would not be a problem, Snitker then began playing the three-time All-Star on a daily basis.
“He was healthy, he was playing and he felt good,” Snitker said. “We were we're going to take off the shackles and turn this guy loose, and I'm glad we did.”
Donaldson began playing on a daily basis on May 23 and did not take off for another three weeks. As he produced a .769 OPS through June 13, he hit just .167 with a .584 OPS against left-handed pitchers. Donaldson's 28.3% strikeout rate within this 65-game span was also uncharacteristic. He too often found himself susceptible to offspeed and breaking pitches.
After hitting off a breaking-ball machine before a June 14 series opener against the Phillies, Donaldson found much more comfort and success at the plate. While producing a .994 OPS over the remainder of the season, he had a 1.010 OPS against lefties and a more characteristic 20.3% strikeout rate.
Donaldson had four two-homer games, but his most influential moments were realized at the expense of the Nationals. He hit six homers (one every 10.8 at-bats) and produced a .990 OPS against Washington this past season.
Donaldson drilled a walk-off single against Fernando Rodney during a July 19 win against the Nationals. A little more than a week later, during a 5-4 10-inning win at Nationals Park, he produced the decisive solo home run off Sean Doolittle.
Donaldson has expressed interest in extending his stay, and the Braves certainly have interest in re-signing him. There will always be concerns about how long to commit to a maximum-effort veteran like Donaldson.
But even if there are concerns about offering a guarantee that extends beyond two years, anything from the third year and beyond has to be viewed as a necessary cost for Donaldson, who spent this past summer proving he is quite capable of continuing to be a difference maker for at least another couple of years.