Now that the Atlanta Braves have clinched another National League East title, this question has been asked, rhetorically and literally:
“Where would the Braves be without Josh Donaldson?”
Maybe they’d still be in first place. But, at a minimum, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have won the division running away.
In sum: Donaldson has been worth every penny of his $23 million contract.
Which brings me to this:
About that column. You know, the one with the subtle headline, “Donaldson proving to be a $23 million mistake.” Yeah. That column.
Look, there’s a perfectly good explanation. My laptop was hacked. The Nigerian diplomat who hacked my account saw that I had no money, got mad and exacted revenge.
Not buying it, huh?
Yeah, well, so here’s the deal. I was … not exactly right.
Most people in the sports opinion business say, “Stand your ground. Never admit you’re wrong.” But to continue insisting that I was right would be like continuing to challenge Donaldson with fastballs inside.
So where would the Braves be without Donaldson?
That’s impossible to answer definitely. Just on his 5.7 WAR alone, they’d still be in first place. But this is why I don’t put complete trust in WAR (wins above average replacement, in case you’re wondering). Donaldson’s impact on the team cannot be measured in home runs alone. When he reported to spring training, there were some who wondered just how his cockiness would fit into the Braves’ team-centric clubhouse.
But he’s done more than just fit in. In fact, it could be argued that his slow start was at least partially due to just trying to fit in.
Then came the incident against Pittsburgh. Joe Musgrove’s fastball tailed in and nicked Donaldson’s jersey. As an irritated Donaldson started slowly going to first base, Musgrove looked bewildered. Donaldson stopped and stared back at Musgrove and blurted, “What the f- …” OK, well, never mind his EXACT words. That fire was exactly what the Braves’ clubhouse needed.
The before and after numbers are staggering. Before that dust-up with Musgrove — which led to the ejection of both players — Donaldson had hit eight home runs in 62 games. He has hit 29 home runs in the 87 games since.
Coincidence, or cause and effect? All of the evidence points to the latter.
Going back to the column, which has had an extended life thanks to Twitter: I wasn’t wrong about Donaldson’s performance per se because the column never said he wouldn’t eventually produce. On the contrary, it acknowledged that he could still finish with numbers similar to the back of his baseball card, as he reminded everyone in spring training.
Nor was I wrong about the belief that Donaldson added more value to this lineup batting cleanup behind Freddie Freeman instead of second.
What I was wrong about — happily, I might add — was the assertion that the $23 million spent on Donaldson precluded Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos from finding more money in the budget to fix the wretched bullpen or add a starting pitcher.
Here are some other hypotheticals to consider.
“Where would the Braves be with Donaldson still batting second?”
We’ll never know, but probably not where they are now if that meant leaving Ronald Acuna Jr. batting cleanup. Even the ever optimistic Freeman questioned that decision in spring training: “Hitting fourth is a whole different mentality. So I don’t know if you want to put a 21-year-old right into that spot yet. ”
It just so happened that Donaldson was dropped to cleanup on the very day that the column was printed — but two days after it was filed.
“Where would the Braves be without Dallas Keuchle?”
Again, not where they are now.
“Where would the Braves be if Austin Riley had not been promoted when he was crushing home runs on a nightly basis in Triple-A?”
More than anything, though, is this.
“Where would the Braves be had Anthopoulos not found the resources to rebuild the bullpen?”
Let’s not forget that even when Donaldson caught fire and Riley was added to the lineup, the bullpen was still blowing leads almost daily.
But Anthopolous saved the season by rebuilding the back end of the bullpen with the acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon without gutting the farm system. He struck gold with the August pickups of Adeiny Hechavarria, Billy Hamilton and Francisco Cervelli.
So maybe the best question of all is this: Where would the Braves be without Alex Anthopoulos? Quite possibly, watching the Nationals celebrate winning the NL East.