Washington Nationals pitchers and fans can breathe a little easier now that third baseman Josh Donaldson has signed on with the Minnesota Twins.
General manager Mike Rizzo said last weekend that the team was still not ruling out luring the nine-year veteran to the nation’s capital, with a reported four-year, $100 million offer still on the table. But after the roster moves Rizzo has already made this offseason, that Donaldson wasn’t coming to Washington might have been the worst-kept secret of the year so far. The only surprise in Donaldson’s reported four-year, $92 million deal, with an option for a fifth season, is that it’s not with Atlanta.
Instead, he gave the Nats the best possible outcome, jumping from the defending National League East champion Braves, perhaps the Nats’ biggest rival, to Minnesota in the American League Central. Barring a World Series matchup or a change in the MLB scheduling formula, Donaldson won’t face the Nats in a game that counts for at least two seasons.
Donaldson, who slashed .259/.379/.521 in 155 games last season with 37 homers and 94 RBIs, is known as the “Bringer of Rain” for his towering home runs. In his one season with the Braves, he did some damage against Washington, with a .277/.405/.585 line in 19 games, with six homers, 11 RBIs, 13 strikeouts and 14 walks in 79 plate appearances.
He also had his share of clutch hits against the Nats, including a walk-off single against Fernando Rodney in a 4-3 Atlanta win on July 19, and a 10th-inning, go-ahead homer off Sean Doolittle in a 5-4 win in Washington on July 31. He also helped the Braves all but eliminate the Nats from the division race in early September, hitting a pair of homers and driving in three to help his team take three of four games from the Nats in suburban Atlanta Sept. 5-8, building the Braves’ lead over the second-place Nats to nine games.
Will Donaldson’s absence leave as big a void in the Atlanta lineup as Anthony Rendon’s departure leaves in Washington’s order? There’s more than one way to look at that.
Donaldson was one of three Braves (along with Feddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.) with more than 35 homers, while Rendon tied with Juan Soto for the Nats’ lead with 34. Rendon’s 7.0 fWAR was ninth in all of baseball, while Donaldson’s 4.9 ranked 33rd.
However, the Nats have already shored up their infield options, signing versatile Starlin Castro away from Miami, and bringing back World Series hero Howie Kendrick and utility man Asdrúbal Cabrera. Waiting in the wings is Carter Kieboom, who was groomed at third, short and second in Class AAA Fresno last season. Kieboom did not pan out in 11 games in the big league last season, but he’ll have an opportunity to win a roster spot in Spring Training.
The Braves, meanwhile, have apparently been waiting around for a re-signing that never happened. They’ve made no significant infield acquisitions, while the next man on the depth chart at third is 26-year-old Johan Camargo, who basically sat behind Donaldson last season. In his only season as a full-timer for the Braves, 2018, Camargo hit .272/.349/.457 with 19 homers and 76 RBI. At least for now, the Nats are better set at third, while the Braves may have to scramble.
Donaldson might have made a nice offensive addition to the Nats’ lineup, but defensively, his range, career .958 fielding percentage, and overall play-making ability are all inferior to Rendon’s, and not much of an upgrade over the platoon the Nats can field. Also, at age 34, Donaldson likely won’t be effective at the hot corner for more than another two seasons. Had the Nats signed Donaldson for four years as planned, they would have needed to move him to first base to play out the contract or trade him to a team that needed an expensive, aging third baseman. Finally, His salary for the coming season would have also placed the Nationals over the major league competitive balance tax threshold, while Sportrac now projects them with more than $15 million of space.
After Rendon’s departure for Southern California, it seemed as if Donaldson was at the top of the Nationals’ offseason wish list. Instead, Rizzo upgraded his bullpen with Will Harris, brought back key infield role players from last year’s World Series champions, and probably left the team enough room to deal for a hot hitter at the trade deadline should existing options falter.