7 takeaways from Donaldson's deal with Braves

November 27th, 2018

Monday sparked, at last, the first bit big free-agency business this offseason, with the Atlanta Braves -- the defending National League East champions -- snatching up one of the biggest names on the market. They signed 2015 American League MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million contract, filling a hole at third base and fortifying a lineup that already looked like one of the best in the NL. The deal has all sorts of ramifications for the Braves, the market, the NL East and the rest of baseball. Let's look at seven big ones.
1. The Braves are making their move
The Braves were probably a year early in winning the NL East in 2018, benefiting from the Nationals' implosion, the typical Mets limbo and the Phillies not quite being ready to take that next leap. The organization probably saw 2019 as the first real year of its competitive window, and with all the young pitching that's coming down the pipeline, it's a window that should stay open for a while. Look at Atlanta's projected '19 lineup now:
1. , RF
2. , 2B
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Josh Donaldson, 3B
5. , LF
6. , CF
7. Dansby Swanson, SS
8. Tyler Flowers (or ), C
Camargo, a breakthrough guy last year, can move around positions; remember, is still hanging around as well. You think Freeman will enjoy having Donaldson batting behind him? And eventually Acuna's going to move to a meatier spot in the order. The Braves have two young superstars, an established stud in Freeman and now Donaldson, presumably healthy, on a make-good contract. And we haven't even gotten to the pitching upgrades that might be coming. This is exactly the sort of move you want your team to make after they've just won their division; you want them hungry for more.
2. One year, $23 million isn't all that difficult a contract to earn out
Using the Fangraphs valuation of one WAR being worth roughly $9 million on the free-agent market -- and again, that's a rough, constantly fluctuating number, but it'll work for our purposes here -- Donaldson would need to put up about a 2.6 WAR season to earn out his deal. Since his breakthrough with the A's in 2013, here are Donaldson's fWAR totals by season:
2013: 7.2
2014: 5.7
2015: 8.7
2016: 7.6
2017: 5.1
2018: 1.3
Look at that last one: In a season in which Donaldson only played 52 games and was never quite right even when he did play … he still got halfway to the number that would mark his contact being worth it. If he's the Donaldson of old, or if he's even close, he'll be one of the best deals in baseball. And remember, fWAR isn't created in a vacuum: Donaldson will be playing for a contending team, which means his contributions matter even more on the margins. The difference between him and an average third baseman might well be a division title.

3. Even the worst-case scenario for the Braves isn't all that bad
What if Donaldson can't find his vintage Toronto form? What if he just can't get himself healthy, or can't find his swing again, or keeps stepping on a rake before every game? Well, the Braves still have Camargo to play third if Donaldson can't get together, and plenty of other options both on the market and in their system to fill in wherever Camargo might be. And it won't affect them past this year, when they're likely to be the favorites in the division moving forward. This is the ultimate beauty of a one-year deal: Even if it hurts you, it only briefly hurts you.
4. We now know what a make-good contract for a potential superstar looks like
Remember last month, when I playfully speculated what might get if he went on a series of one-year deals? I wondered if he could get $45 million on a one-year deal. After this, frankly, that maybe seems a little low? Harper's obviously going to sign a long-term deal, but if you're one of those top free agents hitting the market after the 2019 season -- and maybe you have a down year, or you struggle with injuries -- $23 million for one year isn't the worst consolation prize, is it? If you're, say, or , and 2019 ends up not going the way you want it to, it's nice to know this is potentially in your back pocket.
5. If I'm Mike Moustakas right now, I'm probably in a better mood
Moustakas famously saw his market collapse last offseason, largely because he had a qualifying offer attached to him, which meant teams would have to give up a Draft pick to the Royals to sign him. He, like Donaldson, doesn't have that problem this year, which means he can look at Donaldson's deal and start dreaming on making considerably more than the $6.5 million he earned last year. Moustakas turned down the $15 million option from the Brewers this year, and that seems like it'll be a good call. Moustakas isn't the player Donaldson is at his peak, but he's a lot more reliable, and he has hit 66 homers the past two years. Moustakas took a risk signing a one-year deal last year, betting on himself to get more this offseason. The Donaldson signing is a good sign the bet will pay off.
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6. The Phillies' and Nationals' offseason just got a lot more urgent
The Phillies are said to be willing to spend "stupid money" this offseason, and they're probably going to have to. They were already behind the Braves, and now Atlanta has Donaldson -- not to mention all the young pitchers who are about to arrive. It will be fascinating to see how Philadelphia responds. The Nationals must figure out, fast, where they stand in regard to the Braves in the NL East, now and moving forward.
7. Are the Braves the NL favorite right now?
They were already a likely postseason team, and thanks to the projected improvement of their young players (could Acuna be a 2019 NL MVP Award candidate?) and the potential pitching talent, they were going to be better. (About that pitching: Atlanta's top four prospects are all right-handed starters who have reached or are close to the Majors.)
Now the Braves have Donaldson in the middle of their lineup, and they're likely to add some bullpen pieces, too. They are heading into Year 3 of their new ballpark, and they're clearly trying to win the World Series right now. The NL is competitive, and there are still all sorts of pieces on the chess board for the Dodgers, Cubs, Brewers, et al. But right now, the Braves look stacked. And they're just getting started. Look out.