Josh Donaldson was the biggest addition to the Braves in the offseason before the 2019 season when he signed a one-year, $23 million contract. The deal was a way of Donaldson betting on himself to show that he could be healthy and productive after his previous two seasons were hampered by injury. From the Braves’ perspective, there was little risk to sign a former MVP to only a one-year commitment.
The deal paid off for both sides. Donaldson anchored a strong offense from the cleanup spot, and the Braves won their second straight NL East title in a tough division. Donaldson played a vital role in the team’s 2019 regular season success, as he was second on the team in fWAR.
Almost everything about Donaldson’s 2019 campaign was a success. Offensively, Donaldson provided plenty of power from the cleanup spot behind Freddie Freeman. He mashed 37 home runs while ranking sixth in MLB in average exit velocity and eighth in hard hit percentage (minimum 200 batted ball events). He was also very patient at the plate, walking in 15.2% of his plate appearances, which was the ninth highest in baseball. Donaldson’s mix of power and on-base skills from the right side proved to be the right catalyst to take the Braves’ offense to the next level.
Donaldson’s defense, though, was nearly as valuable as his more obvious offensive contributions. Donaldson ranked second among third basemen with 15 Defensive Runs Scored, second to only Matt Chapman and seven runs saved ahead of perennial Gold Glover Nolan Arenado. Donaldson’s defensive prowess was especially valuable on a team whose pitching staff was as proficient at inducing ground balls as the Braves’.
Another unheralded success of Donaldson’s 2019 season was the way that he quickly gelled with his new teammates. He was fun-loving but an intense and fiery competitor. While other veterans on the team like Freeman and Nick Markakis were more quiet leaders, Donaldson brought an edge to the clubhouse.
Any retelling of Donaldson’s 2019 season, though, would be incomplete without a discussion of his triumphant comeback from two seasons mired by injury. Donaldson essentially missed an entire season out of his two seasons prior to 2019 due to injury, playing in 163 games total in those two seasons. Coming back from this mentally and physically to have a nearly 5-WAR season is nothing short of a spectacle. He is a finalist for the NL Comeback Player of the Year and deserves to win it, as I recently wrote here.
Finding flaws in Donaldson’s 2019 campaign is not easy. However, the Braves’ brutal ejection from the playoffs put a damper on the entire 2019 season, and Donaldson played a part in the team’s elimination. The main reason that the Braves lost in the NLDS was that the heart of the lineup simply didn’t show up.
Braves’ hitters in NLDS
If one or two of these hitters in the middle of the lineup hit like they did in the regular season, the Braves likely would have advanced. While Donaldson contributed a key leadoff double in the ninth inning of Game 3 and added a homerun in the Game 5 blowout, his 54 wRC+ and .167 average with runners in scoring position from the cleanup spot were a cog in the bigger misadventure of an underperforming heart of the order that ultimately led to their elimination. It was a heart-breaking way to end a season that had otherwise been such a tremendous season and story for Donaldson.
What is in store for the Braves and Donaldson going forward is perhaps the biggest story of the Braves’ offseason. Unless Braves’ ownership is willing to spend more of its growing revenue towards its payroll, the team will likely only be able to afford one big contract (in the $20-$25 million AAV range) this offseason and rely on getting more economical deals to fill out the rest of its roster. With big holes to fill at third base, catcher, and pitcher, the team will need to decide where it chooses to prioritize its larger investment.
Donaldson did more than enough in 2019 to make re-signing him a prudent choice, and if I were Alex Anthopoulos, doing so would be my top priority this offseason. The good news for the Braves is that they might have an advantage in retaining him after a season of personal and team success. Donaldson seemed to fit in well and enjoy this season with the Braves, and for a fiery competitor like him, the painful elimination from the playoffs likely makes him all the more eager to get back there and avenge the NLDS loss.