Atlanta Braves

Braves’ Donaldson contract proving to be a $23 million mistake

Baseball executives say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract.

Oh yeah? Meet the exception to the rule.

Exhibit A: Josh Donaldson’s $23 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.

I should note here this is not to bash Donaldson. Who among us would have turned down such a deal? No matter how bad any contract may be, the blame never lies with the beneficiary. (Remember that this coming football season, Auburn fans.)

In Donaldson’s case, the blame rests with general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

Look, Donaldson might end up posting 30 home runs with 100 RBI and an OPS of .950. That’s probably the best case scenario, but I’m not sold that he’ll post those numbers. He currently ranks sixth on the team in WAR behind Ronald Acuña Jr., Nick Markakis, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies. It’s early yet, and WAR is one of those statistics intended to measure a complete season, not a six-week stretch.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say he does. Even if that turns out to be the case, it will not change this fact.

Signing Donaldson to a $23 million contract for one year was a mistake. No, it’s not the magnitude of those franchise altering mistakes of signing Dan Uggla or B.J. Upton. (Yes, Uggla was acquired from Miami in a trade, but the five-year contract extension after the fact was foolish.)

But it was a mistake nonetheless. And unless a contender gets desperate for a third baseman or designated hitter between now and July 31, they are stuck with this mistake.

I’ll admit to my own inconsistency here. I thought it was a good move last November when the Braves signed Donaldson. They had money to spend after clearing the contracts of Scott Kazmir and Adrian Gonzalez from their books. Kazmir and Gonzalez raked in $40 million combined for doing absolutely nothing. By comparison, Donaldson’s $23 million deal seemed like a bargain.

I still stand by that. But what I misread was the Brave’ intentions. I thought Donaldson was the first piece to the off-season puzzle of strengthening a team that had won its division. Plug some right-handed power behind Freddie Freeman, then bolster the bullpen.

Only, Donaldson prefers to hit second, not fourth. Seems like for $23 million he could bat where they want him to, but OK. So he’s a No. 2 hitter. Not ideal, but it’s workable.

Except that Anthopoulos did nothing in the offseason to address their bullpen problems. Now — surprise — they have arguably the worst bullpen of any team that considers itself a contender.

They blew yet another lead Thursday night in Arizona. Ironically, it was Donaldson’s home run in the eighth that gave them the lead. But Luke Jackson gave up a home run in the ninth to David Peralta and A.J. Minter lost the game in the bottom of the 10th.

The shoddy bullpen is only half the problem created by Donaldson’s contract.

Austin Riley is stuck at Gwinnett making a joke of Triple-A pitching and blocked by Donaldson. Or, more accurately, by Donaldson’s $23-million contract. So now Riley is getting a crash course in playing the outfield so the Braves can figure out how to promote him and get him into the lineup. Hopefully crash is just a metaphor.

Riley began the season as the Braves’ top hitting prospect. He’s done nothing to lessen that. Through his first 32 games at Gwinnett, Riley has batted .315 with 12 home runs and 10 doubles. Much of that has come in the last 13 games: .404 average, 10 home runs and six doubles.

With 2,008 plate appearances in the minor leagues and the Arizona Fall League, Riley has done all he can do to prove himself. It’s evident that the Braves’ management thinks so as well.

When they call him up, Riley needs to play. Acuña and Markakis are not going to sit. That leaves Ender Inciarte as the likely odd man out, with Acuña moving to center field.

He’s not going to play third base because teams don’t sign a guy for $23 million and sit him on the bench.

Of course, there’s no certainty that Riley will hit in the big leagues, especially right away. But he has hit at every stop in the minor leagues, including 71 home runs in the past three-plus seasons. There’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly find himself overmatched.

One reason Anthopoulos didn’t add a veteran starting pitcher was he didn’t want to block the progress of guys like Max Fried and Mike Soroka. Too bad he didn’t apply the same logic to Riley. So now maybe the best power hitter in the entire Braves organization must wait his turn. And Craig Kimbrel, one of the top five relievers in baseball, waits for his phone to ring.

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