With Josh Donaldson’s impending free agency, third base has become an open question yet again for the Braves. This was always a likely outcome as Donaldson signed a one year deal to prove his worth to this year’s market and the Braves weren’t going to sign him to an extension when they could just sign him with the qualifying offer attached (which it has already been reported by Bowman and others that he will receive it and will reject it) to put the team in a better negotiating position.
Below you will find some possible options for the Braves at third base as we head into free agency in the coming days. There are always crazy trades that could happen like the Braves going after Jose Ramirez or something, but here is a quick preview.
Safest Bet - Josh Donaldson
I know it is never safe to assume that a guy looking for his final big payday of his career that also came off a big bounceback campaign is going to re-sign, but there are mitigating factors that make it seem like a reunion with the Braves could be the most likely outcome. While Donaldson DID get the Braves to give him $23 million just for the the 2019 season and that was him coming off an injury filled season as opposed to one where he was healthy AND posted a 132 wRC+ in 650+ plate appearances and playing strong defense, there are thing that weigh against Donaldson leaving Atlanta. Josh is going to be 34 years old on Opening Day in 2020 and does have that 2018 season that saw him miss time on his ledger. That is going to make teams leery of wanting to give him more than three years on any deal.
The problem isn’t that Donaldson, in a vacuum, would struggle to get a strong three year deal. Josh Donaldson is awesome and most clubs would love to have his bat in their lineups. Where it gets tricky for him is that with the qualifying offer attached to him, teams are not going to be super enthusiastic about giving up a draft pick to sign an older player for just three seasons or so especially for the AAV that he is going to want and frankly deserve.
As a result, given those factors plus that both sides seem interested in getting together, the safest bet seems to be that Donaldson remains the Braves third baseman in 2020. A two year deal with a club or vesting option or three years guaranteed with an AAV maybe a bit north (if at all) of the $23 million he made this season seems about right. If a team offers him better than that (especially if it is four years or more), then the Braves probably need to look elsewhere
Riskiest play - Do nothing and bet on Austin Riley
This is going to be a hard sell to the fanbase if this is what happens considering how much Riley struggled in the majors after his torrid start, but it has its merits. If the Braves and Donaldson cannot get on the same page and/or the Braves have plans to spend big money elsewhere, then a risky gambit would be to just plan on Austin Riley getting a crack at the third base job. It is easy to forget just how good he was in Gwinnett to start the season as well as how good he was for those first few weeks in the majors, but Riley is an incredibly talented player with big time upside who would also be cheap in the coming years.
However, there is also the fact that Austin struck out in 36.4% of his plate appearances in the major leagues this season and looked completely lost against major league breaking balls at times. It is fair to bet on his work ethic and ability to adjust because he has shown he can do that in the minors, but there were some big red flags from his first stint in the majors. Giving a guy that young with those concerns the keys to the starting third base job might be the riskiest proposition for the Braves, but one that does have some pros in its favor especially if it allows you to make a big splash elsewhere by freely up finances a bit.
Go big or go home - Anthony Rendon
The best position player on the free agent market this offseason is Anthony Rendon. There is no question about that. He also happens to play third base which makes him relevant to discuss here. If the offseason drags along and Donaldson is not in a Braves uniform early on, there are going to be fans that are going to be demanding that the Braves either get Donaldson or Rendon.
However, Rendon has already turned down some sort of extension offer from the Nationals (although them winning the title this year might create some good feelings on both sides there) and folks are already floating Nolan Arenado’s eight year, $260 million extension figure in regards to Rendon even with Rendon turning 30 next season. He probably won’t already get that, but with Scott Boras as his agent....you can rest assured that he will hold out for as much money as humanly possible.
This raises another problem. In addition to having to shell out big time cash for Rendon, the Braves probably wouldn’t find out if they would be successful in landing him until late in the offseason because that is Boras’ M.O. While it serves his clients (most of the time) well, it does mean that the Braves would have to reserve a good bit of payroll space that could be used elsewhere during the offseason and they might not even get him given the number of expected suitors. That said, Rendon is really, really good and going after him would seemingly signal that the Braves would be looking to shed their “financial flexibility” meme if nothing else.
Solid if unexciting - Mike Moustakas
This would be a disappointment for a lot of folks especially if Donaldson ends up going somewhere else for on a really reasonable deal, but the Braves could do significantly worse than Moustakas who has been trying to get a good contract for a couple of years now. He isn’t a superstar and his game is far from perfect, but the guy will be an above average hitter, hit for power, will draw walks and not strike out a ton, and play reasonable if unspectacular defense.
Moustakas has a mutual $11 million option with the Brewers and while the Brewers would sign that in a heartbeat, it seems safe to assume that Moustakas to try to test free agency again. One would think that he would give up on hitting a long-term deal jackpot given the lack of interest he has gotten in two offseasons now and he has to be getting tired of one year, prove it deals. A three or four year deal with Moustakas with somewhere in the range of $15 million per year might get a conversation started and could be a decent fallback plan if the Braves can’t lock up Donaldson.
Other options - ....bleh
If you are looking at this free agent class at third base, it is Rendon, Donaldson, Moustakas...and a whole bunch of nothing after that. I guess if you squint your eyes, Todd Frazier has some redeeming qualities, but the market definitely dries up after the top three guys. Names you may recongize include Frazier, Jung-ho Kang (who was terrible in 2019 and ended up getting released by the Pirates before the end of the season), Asdrubal Cabrera, Martin Prado, and Pablo Sandoval. Now, if a few of those guys also came with time machines, then then would be interesting...but sadly those advancements have yet to be made.
The trade market is a much less clear picture this early on, but a glance says that if the Braves were to make a trade, it isn’t LIKELY to be for a third baseman. It is more likely that Atlanta would trade for a player at another position and, in the event that such a move also meant they could sign a guy, that they would just stick Austin Riley in at third and hope for the best.