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Signing of Donaldson, McCann signifies end of rebuild for Braves

The Atlanta Braves made one of the first big free agent signings of the offseason this week by striking a deal with former AL MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson, and reuniting with long-time catcher and former homegrown talent Brian McCann.

Both roster additions are of the one-year variety with deals of $23 million for Donaldson and $2 million for McCann.

Bringing McCann back into the fold is already a hit with Braves Country, as he was always one of the most popular members of the team during his initial nine-year tenure with the club from 2005 to 2013. Although he’s probably in the twilight of his career, “B-Mac” will be a nice left-handed compliment to the returning Tyler Flowers at catcher. The incumbent Flowers effectively split time with Kurt Suzuki over the past two seasons; however, Suzuki signed a two-year/$10 million pact with the Washington Nationals earlier this winter.

As for Donaldson, the move reunites him with General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, who traded for him years ago when he was calling the shots for the Toronto Blue Jays. Though Donaldson is coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season, the one-year deal is of limited risk for both sides. If Donaldson returns to form in 2019, he could rebuild his value and enter the following offseason as a more coveted free agent. If he doesn’t, then the Braves are only committed to him for the one season.

After being acquired from the Oakland Athletics following the 2014 season, Donaldson put up gaudy numbers for the Blue Jays in 2015 (41 HRs/123 RBIs and a .297/.371/.568 slash line), ultimately earning him the title of AL MVP. He also won the Silver Slugger Award that season and followed it up with 33 HRs, 99 RBIs, and a .284/.404/.549 slash line in 2016.

While dealing with nagging injuries all last season, Donaldson played only 36 games for the Blue Jays before being dealt to the Cleveland Indians for their playoff run.

The signing of Donaldson was one way for the Braves to address a hole in their lineup created by the expired contract of last year’s cleanup hitter Nick Markakis. Rather than addressing the immediate right field need, Anthopoulos chose to secure Donaldson. Johan Camargo played a great defensive third base and showed an offensive progression during the Braves’ first-place finish in the NL East last season, but all indications now point to him being used in the “super utility” role that a number of other teams try to fashion. Camargo has the ability to play all over the diamond, so he could easily fill a corner outfield spot if the Braves don’t address the need via trade or free agency.

The Braves also have highly-touted 3B prospect Austin Riley on the cusp of making his debut after a powerful showing at Triple-A Gwinnett last year, so as long as Donaldson is healthy, Camargo will hopefully find playing time around the diamond while Riley will test out his skills at both 3B and LF when he begins his first full season at Gwinnett in 2019.

With Donaldson now on board and primed to hit fourth behind fellow MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, the Braves could begin the season with Camargo in LF, Ender Inciatre in CF, and move reigning Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna, Jr. to RF, or still make a move this winter to sign a free agent or find a corner bat via trade.

The Braves could choose circle back to Nick Markakis, who enjoyed one of his finest seasons in the bigs last year as one of the club’s best, most productive leaders. He played all 162 games last season while hitting to a .297/.366/.440 slash line with 14 HRs, 93 RBIs, 185 hits, and 43 doubles. At age 34, Markakis also made his first All-star team, won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger Award, and finished 18th in MVP balloting.

While Markakis will probably receive offers from multiple teams, it would be surprising if he got a contract offer more than two or three years given his age. The free agent market hasn’t been kind to aging players over the past couple of offseasons, even those coming off stellar years.

With $25 million committed to Donaldson and McCann for the upcoming season, the Braves still have some financial flexibility to address their needs for bullpen help and a bonafide ace for the rotation. While Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb made great strides in 2018, elder statesman Julio Teheran seemed to regress while experiencing ups and downs throughout the year. The club added Kevin Gausman to the mix at the trade deadline, but could still explore trading for an arm to lead the rotation.

The club’s bullpen could also use upgrades, as inexperience, injuries, and inconsistency plagued the club down the stretch.

Though a number of moves could still be made, Donaldson and McCann add stability, experience, and leadership to a young club with arguably the best farm system in the sport. It also marks the end of the rebuild the club has been engaged in since 2015 when it began trading away players like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Melvin Upton, Jr., and Craig Kimbrel. The club eventually parted ways with young controllable players like Andrelton Simmons and Shelby Miller as well before righting the ship in 2018 and returning to the postseason.

With a wealth of young pitching and impact players in the pipeline, Anthopoulos and the Braves have plenty of firepower to add more pieces via trade as the club looks to make a deeper postseason run in 2019. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the club remain active with the Winter Meetings set to start Dec. 9 in Las Vegas.