The Atlanta Braves still wanted Josh Donaldson; they just got to a point where they didn’t want him as much as the Twins did.
We don’t know – and may never know – the size of the offer that the Atlanta Braves set before the Twins new third baseman, but there are a couple of things that seem pretty clear about this saga:
- The Braves truly wanted Josh Donaldson back – and thought they were in the chase to the very end.
- The Braves thought their offer – though less than that of the Twins – was going to be enough to win.
How do we know this? Mostly by logic mixed with a bit of reading between the lines.
All accounts continued to say ‘Josh Donaldson prefers to return to Atlanta’ throughout the entire process - until he didn’t. If that was really the case (and there was truly no reason to doubt it), then it explains the Braves holding firm for the entire duration.
There were concerns, no doubt: as of the Winter Meetings it was believed that Atlanta was among those offering just 3 years to the former MVP.
Sometime between then and the end of the year, they made a fairly large concession in raising that to a 4th year. It is almost certain that they only did this because they had to to stay in the bidding… which also indicated their desire to bring him back.
One by one, the other suitors peeled off: some, like the Dodgers or Cardinals, seemed a bit lukewarm to the whole idea at all. Others like the Rangers apparently scoffed at even the 3-year level, and became spectators to the drama as well.
In early January, the Nationals suddenly turned and opted to sign virtually every available veteran infielder (and the better remaining relievers, too) in a move that signaled to everyone but the National (singular) baseball writers that they were giving up and filling out their team without Donaldson.
That left just the Twins and Braves. And the Twins remained stubborn.
Good Enough - Until it Wasn't
As for point #2, you’d have to think that Atlanta did believe they would ultimately win the player: at that point, it’s likely that the Twins were behind… maybe in geography if not actual dollars.
But then this 5th year option appeared.
Earlier in the process, I had suggested that an extra “wink/wink” option clause would be a way for Atlanta to raise their bid without damaging their payroll excessively. The idea was to add a 4th option year to a 3 year contract that had a high buyout price: $6 million.
When that option time came around, the club would decline it, pay the buyout, and it would effectively be a bonus check that effectively raised the annual rate by $2 million per year… a quickly-paid deferral, if you will.
The Twins implemented that very plan – albeit for the 5th year of a 4-year deal – and that was the separation they needed to end the standoff as the Braves chose not to match.
So instead of $21 million per year, Donaldson is effectively going to get $23 million per season – the same amount the Braves gave him in 2019.
Yes… he could get that option year picked up: $16 million for his age 39 season. It would cost the Twins only $8 million extra (beyond the buyout rate) to do so. But I wouldn’t expect it and the Twins don’t really either.
But this $8 million extra had to have been a fairly large bump to their bid – certainly we know that it caused Atlanta to yield. It’s reasonably possible that an Atlanta offer of 4x20 ($80 million) was their bid level. 4X21 probably might have matched the Twins before last week, and if so, that should have been enough to win.
We also noted reports that Minnesota – figuring they were fighting an uphill battle all the way – were on a ‘charm offensive’. They kept a conversation going directly with Donaldson to build a rapport and to try and tear down any walls of hesitation.
Still, in the end they still knew they had to outbid Atlanta… and they did - adding that clause which itself likely trumped the Braves by an additional 10%.
The Braves, already having exceeded their comfort zone with the 4th year, then had no place to go.
While all of this was going on, Atlanta really didn’t seem to be pushing other avenues other than ‘due diligence’ calls about free agents and perhaps about the availability of possible trade targets.
No, their eggs were mostly in Donaldson’s basket… and that’s okay… if you win the day.
Despite all of that, there was still (obviously) a point at which the Braves were willing to walk away. That’s a difficult - yet healthy - thing to do whenever competition at an auction is getting too zealous.
Of course, that's more of a problem when you actually need to win the auction, for now they have to start over... that hole in the lineup hasn't gotten any smaller.
As important as this player was to Atlanta, though, there are lines they had to draw. Perhaps it was because they had a good guess on his future production. Perhaps it had to do with future health and concern that instead of having four strong shots at the World Series, they might only have a couple of them if Donaldson were to break down soon.
Regardless... it's done. It only takes one team to go the extra mile, and it wasn't the Braves this time.
Note: It would be unfair to suggest (as some will) that 'the Braves never go the extra mile'... after all, you can take a look at the current roster and say otherwise: Hamels, Melancon, Smith... heck, even Donaldson a year ago. All of these players are (or were) on the club because the extra dollar was spent.
Just not this one. Not this time.
Still - it's because of this extra money already spent that Anthopoulos is going to fill this spot. He has to. He's 'pot committed'. It just won't be done as originally hoped and planned.
Depending on what happens from here, that may or may not be a point of regret in the future. But that's what makes GMs restless at night: the unknown future.