The Atlanta Braves are Built to Withstand Josh Donaldson’s Departure

Is Josh Donaldson signing with the Minnesota Twins good for the Atlanta Braves. No, but they’re built to withstand his departure.

It’s difficult to replace someone who plays a stellar third base, posted a .900 OPS, and flat-out rakes at the plate. Donaldson was manager Brian Snitker‘s cleanup hitter last season and looked like his elite self, serving as an intimidating middle-of-the-order hitter and rounding out an elite defensive infield which included Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson.

Donaldson inked a four-year, $92 million deal with the Twins. Based on the recurring reports of him chasing a contract in excess of $100 million and his role in their 97-win season, it’s surprising that the Braves didn’t match or surpass that offer.

On the other hand, they have two viable in-house options to lockdown the hot corner: Johan Camargo and Austin Riley.

Camargo was an everyday player for the Braves in 2018. He started 105 games at third base and was a fixture in their lineup. Hitting .272 while posting an .806 OPS and 115 OPS+ and totaling 19 home runs and 76 RBIs, Camargo was an underrated source of offense in what was his first full season in the big leagues.

Camargo also brings defensive versatility to the table, as he played shortstop in 2019 when Swanson missed a month due to a heel injury. Camargo has made 175 appearances at third base, 69 at shortstop, 16 at second, and 12 in left field over his three seasons in the big leagues.

Last season he was an infielder on the rise manning a reserve role. Still 26, Camargo could flourish at third base over the long haul.

Riley is the Braves’ most recent development. Before tearing his LCL and slumping down the stretch of last season, the left fielder was punishing baseballs. Across his first 14 games in the majors, Riley hit .375, posted an 1.192 OPS, and totaled seven home runs and 20 RBIs; he’s the modern-day power hitter. Riley made an already well-versed lineup relentless.

Like Camargo, Riley is a versatile fielder. While he primarily played left field, Riley also made appearances at both corner outfield and infield positions last season.

Camargo and Riley aren’t perfect. Camargo struggled to get on base at a reliable rate last season. Meanwhile, Riley posted a 108:62 strikeout-to-hit-ratio and was a little shaky in the outfield. At the same time, these deficiencies are fixable.

With more consistent playing time, Camargo can get into a groove at the plate and adjust his approach against the opposition’s starting pitcher in the ensuing at-bats he receives during a game. Riley has just one year in the majors under his belt; he’ll inevitably garner more plate discipline, fine-tune his plate tendencies, and have a more definitive role.

The other route the Braves can take is making a trade. The two hot names on the trade market are Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant. Both will cost a great deal of top-tier prospects to acquire, but the Braves have one of the deepest farm systems in Major League Baseball. They’ve been stockpiling their minor-league system with highly regarded young players for the last five years; most of the players on the big-league club are homegrown products.

The modern-day game, especially the National League game, is reliant on pitching depth and defensive versatility. Camargo and Riley have played multiple positions in the big leagues and have considerable pop in their bats. Plus, they have more upside than Donaldson.

It’s not to say that either player will have a better season than Donaldson did in 2019 (.259/.379/.521 batting line, 15 DRS), but Camargo and Riley haven’t played more than a full season at the major-league level. They’re talented young players with compelling skill sets and should improve with more playing time. Plus, there’s zero guarantee that Donaldson duplicates that production in 2020 or beyond — although, if he sniffs anything close to it, he makes the Twins lineup, which arguably resembled the best offense in baseball last season, unstoppable.

If we remove the two youngsters from the equation, the Braves lineup is still stacked; Freeman is one of the best first basemen in baseball; Albies is a savvy, two-way player; Ronald Acuna Jr. is one of the faces of MLB; Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte are reliable veterans; Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers are two of the better hitting catchers in baseball.

Now, the Braves are going to have their hands full in the National League East next season. The Washington Nationals have done a great job filling out their roster in the wake of Anthony Rendon‘s free agent departure, and they have the best starting rotation in baseball. They also won the World Series last season, which is kinda noteworthy.

The New York Mets are an NL sleeper. They have a positional core on the rise, a stout starting rotation, and a bullpen of relievers capable of bounce-back seasons. In what was perceived as a rollercoaster season, the Mets managed to win 86 games.

Back-to-back first-round exits including surrendering 10 runs in the first inning of a win-or-go-home Game 5 at home invites concern about whether the Braves will get over the hump, especially considering how the organization makes few big-money moves. Ultimately, they still have the talent to contend for the NL pennant.

When the Braves inked Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal, it was viewed as a one-year enhancer for their positional core. While the production he put forth is expected for a salary of that magnitude, few, if any expected the bounce-back season he put together. He was never viewed as a long-term piece to the puzzle.

The Braves have the depth to replace Donaldson.

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