Braves: Letting Josh Donaldson walk isn’t looking so bad right now

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Many of us opposed GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Braves’ decision to let free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson go this past offseason. After nearly earning top-10 votes in the NL MVP race in 2019, and posting 4.9 fWAR with 37 homers and 94 RBI, it didn’t seem right to let one of the team’s leaders walk away. 

Obviously, it wasn’t that simple. Donaldson is a 34-year-old player with recent injury woes and features a limited selection of tools. He can’t pitch, he no longer catches, and at this point in his career, the only direction his performance can go is down. Even more, JD rightfully wanted to be compensated for his 2019 breakthrough, demanding a contract four or five years in length and around $100 million in total value. For Anthopoulos, re-signing Donaldson would’ve been a substantial investment, but more than anything, it would’ve been a massive risk. 

Still, given the Braves’ issues at third since Chipper’s departure (save for Johan Camargo’s breakout 2018), the thought of JD manning the hot corner for the next 4-5 seasons seemed like a no-brainer. Just spend the money!

Of course, Anthopoulos decided to pass, and the Twins landed Donaldson in mid-January on a 4-year, $92 million deal with a fifth-year option valued at $16 million. Half of Braves Country got their pitchforks out, and the other half let out a sigh of relief. 

But that deal, which now feels like years ago, has actually worked out rather well for the Braves. In fact, you could even say Anthopoulos and the Braves dodged a bullet by NOT re-signing Donaldson.

Here’s why…

Everyone that was monitoring the Donaldson sweepstakes this past winter knew that his potential deal would be all about the front-end, or the first one or two seasons of his contract. That was the entire hold up, as teams struggled to decide whether or not Donaldson could provide enough value in those first few seasons to make a four or five-year deal worth their while. 

For example, back in November (before JD signed), FanGraphs’ writer Craig Edwards laid out what Donaldson’s future seasons could look like by comparing similar players in their age-34+ seasons (I highly recommend you read his write-up). It doesn’t look too promising once Donaldson reaches his age-35 and 36 seasons, which would’ve been years 2 and 3 of his current deal with Minnesota (2021-22). However, given the current circumstances, Donaldson most likely won’t play his first full season for the Twins until 2021 (his age-35 season), which looking at the numbers… ruins the entire contract. 

Regardless of how costly a missed 2020 is, Donaldson was projected by ZiPS to be a 3.8-WAR player this season, but that has already been mostly wasted because of the COVID-19 outbreak; and that’s a shame for the Twins, given JD’s performance in his age-35 season is projected to take a rather large dip (2.9 WAR). And like all projections, that’s not a guarantee. According to Edwards’ piece mentioned above, six of the nine players he listed as comps to JD achieved at least 2.9 WAR in their age-35 seasons. Those are pretty solid odds, but those players were also really good (George Brett, Ben Zobrist, Mark Grace, Jeff Kent, Robinson Cano, and Carl Yastrzemski). 

But Donaldson’s contract with the Twins goes for at least two more seasons, and possibly a third if his option is picked up. So what about his age-36 and 37 seasons (2022 and 2023)?

This is where missing most or all of the 2020 season hurts the Twins and makes Anthopoulos’ decision the correct one (even if he had no idea a virus pandemic was on its way). 

ZiPS has Donaldson marked for 2.1 WAR at 36-years-old (2022 season), but the odds are starting to dwindle as over 40% of the comps listed by Edward’s failed to reach that mark in their respective age-36 seasons. Move on to his age-37 campaign, and ZiPS drops his performance down to just 1 WAR, with two players from Edwards’ list not even applicable (Cano hasn’t played his age-37 season yet, and Keith Hernandez retired at 36). Although even with those two players removed, Edwards’ list posts a solid average of 2.4 WAR in their age-37 seasons. But with Donaldson projected less than half of that, it’s pretty apparent ZiPS doesn’t believe he’s on the same level performance-wise as the likes of Kent, Yastrzemski and Brett (which is most likely the correct judgment). 

But that’s not the point. We already know Donaldson will probably be half the player he is now when he’s 37-years-old, or at least much worse overall. Anthopoulos and the Braves knew that, and so did the Twins when they signed him.

The real takeaway here, which perhaps could’ve been expressed in a lot fewer words, is that Donaldson mostly had two seasons (2020 and 2021) to make his big contract worth it, and that’s no longer possible, especially if there’s no 2020 season. Overall, Donaldson was projected by ZiPS to tally roughly 10 WAR over the life of his contract, with around 7 WAR coming in just the first two seasons. Unfortunately for the Twins, that’s not going to happen. 

Anthopoulos and the Braves had no idea the 2020 season could potentially be canceled, but they did know that re-signing Donaldson was already destined to be quite a dangerous cost, even in ordinary circumstances. We can’t give the Braves all the credit, but I think it’s safe to say they’ll come out of this better off. Sometimes you just get lucky.


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