The question that every Atlanta Braves fan has been asking since the off-season began is: “who will be the Braves third baseman next season?” With Josh Donaldson declining his qualifying offer and electing free agency, the Braves have a big hole to fill. Two of the top third basemen in free agency already signed as Mike Moustakas went to the Reds and Anthony Rendon with the Angels. What options do the Braves have to choose from?
Josh Donaldson is the top free-agent left in the third base market. Coming off of a season where he posted a 4.9 fWAR and won Comeback Player of the Year, Donaldson will be in the market for a multi-year deal. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos took a risk last year giving Donaldson a one-year deal after an injury-plagued 2018. This move turned out to be successful as Donaldson added both depth and consistency to the Braves lineup. It also aided the Braves’ increase in total runs scored from 759 in 2018 to 855 in 2019. Ever since the Chipper Jones retirement in 2012, the Braves have been searching for a long-term replacement. Donaldson was the first player to successfully fill that role.
The most recent report is that Donaldson prefers to re-sign with the Braves but has other teams interested, via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. It has been reported that Donaldson is seeking a four-year deal via MLBTradeRumors. This could be a deterrent for some teams as he recently turned 34 years old. The Braves could bring back a fan-favorite that filled both the need of a third baseman and a power bat in heart of the lineup.
Austin Riley was the 33rd overall prospect and the fourth-best third base prospect on FanGraphs before the 2019 season. Riley received the call in May to play left field despite being primarily a third baseman. He started out scorching the ball, posting a 1.143 OPS with seven home runs in 63 plate appearances in May. The right-handed hitter quickly cooled off as scouting reports developed, as he could not lay off of the slider away. Riley’s OPS dropped from 1.143 in May down to .778 in June, then plummeted to an abysmal .480 in July. His strikeout percentage dropped from an already high 33% in May to 42.9% in July. He was sent back down to AAA at that point.
There is a lot of upside to Riley as he showed in May. He can move back to third base, improve on his strikeout rate, and continue to get better as he is only 22 years old. There would be growing pains, as-is with every young player, but Riley could be the cheaper in-house option at third base.
Kris Bryant has been linked to the Braves on a number of trade rumors. It would make sense for the Braves to pursue a player like Bryant. Bryant posted a 4.8 fWAR last season for the Cubs while hitting 31 home runs, the most since his 2016 MVP season. Still young, Bryant has not reached his service time to become a free agent, making him available for arbitration. He could play third base but also relieve Freeman at first and Acuna in left field with his defensive versatility. Bryant could immediately take over the role of Donaldson as being the power bat in the cleanup spot. It would take quite the haul to bring the corner bat to Atlanta, as he has posted over an .800 OPS every season of his career.
The Cubs would be searching for a package of highly touted prospects with the addition of Major League talent. From the Braves, this would most like include prospects such as Christian Pache, Drew Waters, Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, and/or Bryse Wilson along with Major League talent in the form of Max Fried or Mike Foltynewicz. The trade would most likely include one of those two Major League pitchers and at least two of a combination of prospects. Bryant is set to make around $45 million in the next two years via arbitration, mentioned by Jesse Rogers of ESPN. Bryant would be cheaper option that Donaldson and a more reliable option than Riley but would cost the Braves some top tier prospects.
The Braves have different ways to approach their third base vacancy, but it all comes down to what the Braves are willing to sacrifice. Donaldson with the money, Riley and his growing pains, or part ways with the prospects to get Bryant. Alex Anthopoulos has quite the decision to make in the next coming weeks.
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