Braves hoping the Josh Donaldson of 2015 will show up this season
Forget the Manny Machado/Bryce Harper sweepstakes, the Braves may have signed the best free agent available when third baseman Josh Donaldson inked a one-year, $23 million deal on November 26, 2018. Donaldson won American League MVP honors in 2015 when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays, and the Braves are betting he can recreate that same magic at the hot corner in Atlanta.
Donaldson made his professional debut in 2010 with the Oakland A’s, playing in 14 games before being sent to the minors in Triple-A Sacramento, where he spent the rest of 2010 and the entire 2011 season. Finally in 2012 the A’s called him up and he was installed as the club’s starting third baseman. Donaldson hit a paltry .153 to begin the season and was sent back to Sacramento. His replacement, Brandon Inge, whom the A’s had signed that April after being released by Detroit, went on the DL with a dislocated shoulder later that year, and Donaldson was called back up—this time for good.
The year 2013 was a breakout season for Donaldson, solidifying his starting role with the Athletics while sending a message to the league. That year the 27-year-old hit .301 with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs, finishing fourth in the MVP voting. He had come a long way in a short time, but he was by no means satisfied. “I strive for excellence. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh yeah, I finished fourth in the MVP vote, I’m going to shut ‘er down.’ I want to continue to improve,” Donaldson told SFGate.com.
Donaldson continued his power hitting in 2014, smashing 29 home runs and driving in 98 runs. But after the season, the A’s shipped him to Toronto in exchange for third baseman Brett Lawrie, shortstop Franklin Barreto, and two pitching prospects: Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin. Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the massive trade after Oakland GM Billy Beane first balked at the idea of moving Donaldson. “We asked if there was any way they would talk about Donaldson, and Billy emphatically told me, no, he’s not trading him. … [A few weeks later,] I asked again, asked if there was any way we could make it appealing for him. It went back and forth, and I think when Brett was involved to replace Josh, that’s when things started to move a little bit,” Anthopoulos told MLB.com.
Perhaps Beane second-guessed that decision when Donaldson turned in his 2015 numbers. He posted a slash line of .297/41/123, was named AL MVP, and shattered the All-Star record for most votes, receiving more than 14 million. “I honestly could never tell you I would ever expect this; it’s kind of mind-blowing a little bit,” Donaldson said.
But Donaldson’s prowess was not simply reserved for his bat; he was also developing a reputation as an outstanding defenseman and clubhouse guy. “But he has a different kind of personality, I’ve said before many times, that we needed on this ballclub,” said then-Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “He’s a guy that keeps pushing, pushing, never takes an inning off. We needed some of that, but the name of the game is production on the field, and he is near the top of most offensive categories, and he has played some great defense for us. I don’t know where we would be without him.”
Donaldson continued his hot hitting through the 2016 season (.284/37/99), but nagging injuries eventually led to his exodus from Toronto. In August 2018, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for pitching prospect Julian Merryweather. In 16 games for the Indians, Donaldson hit .280 and three home runs.
Soon he would reunite with Anthopoulos, however. After a terrific stint in Toronto and serving for one-year in Los Angeles as the Dodgers Vice President of Baseball Operations, Anthopoulos became the Braves’ general manager in November 2017.
Now the Braves are trusting that Donaldson can stabilize the batting cliff that currently exists behind slugger Freddie Freeman. The Braves will have to make a decision on whether to bench Johan Camargo, the team’s starting third baseman in 2018, or shift him to the outfield. Camargo will get the call if Donaldson goes on the IR, but the Braves are expecting his body to hold up for a playoff run.
In a culture where offseason moves can be shaky and unpredictable, perhaps Donaldson is precisely what the Braves need to topple the Dodgers and make the franchise’s first World Series appearance since 1999. H&A
Cover photo courtesy Atlanta Braves