Fantasy Impact: Josh Donaldson Signs with Atlanta Braves
If you are following the MLB hot stove action, then you are aware that slugger Josh Donaldson has signed this week with the Atlanta Braves on a one-year, $23 million contract. There are two ways to look at this move, from the perspective of the Braves 2019 season and the fantasy prospects for Donaldson. While Donaldson has been elite for most of his career, the problem now is that he is an older player in the midst of an obvious and distinct decline. Entering his age-33 season, Donaldson is no sure thing to produce as he has in past years. The question then is can he be a productive player in 2019? And if he is productive will his bat be potent enough to justify his use from a fantasy perspective? The Braves maybe be satisfied with a limited Donaldson during the season if he helps them to get over the top during the postseason, but fantasy owners likely will not.
The Allure of Donaldson
From 2013-2017 there were few hitters more feared or more productive than Donaldson. He boasts a career batting line of .275/.367/.503 and has the potential to hit 30-40 home runs in any season. If healthy, Donaldson has the ability to dominate the league and put up MVP numbers. His potential was on full display his 2015 MVP season when he slashed .297/.371/.568 with 41 HR and 123 RBI. There is no question that Donaldson can take over a game and even carry a team with his bat for extended periods of time. His plus defense at third base also ensures that his team employs him even when he may be experiencing an extended slump.
It’s clear why the Braves signed Donaldson. He could be a huge bargain for Atlanta if he is healthy, and they did not have to commit to him long term. For fantasy owners depending upon Donaldson is a much bigger dilemma. If he’s healthy he could be extremely valuable, but if he spends extended periods of time on the DL he could hurt your team more than he helps it. In the past two seasons combined he has only logged 602 AB and in 2018 he only played in 52 games. The numbers at the plate are still above average and Donaldson did post an .801 OPS in 2018, but for those who drafted him to anchor their fantasy squads, his 215 AB and eight HR were a major disappointment. This brings us to the crux of the issue. Donaldson is entering his age 33-season and his calf injury has become a chronic problem over the past two seasons, sidelining him for extended periods of time.
Fantasy owners drafting in 2019 will need to weigh this situation carefully prior to their draft. If healthy he is a league-winner. If on the DL he is wasted draft capital. Bobby Sylvester currently has Donaldson ranked 132nd which is about an 11th-12th round pick, depending on league format. At that price, he is probably worth the risk, but he will go much earlier in many drafts and could rise up draft boards as we approach Opening Day. Steamer has his 2019 projection at .257/364/.479 with 26 HR in 570 PA which are certainly serviceable numbers. There’s no reason to believe this projection is unattainable as long as he is healthy. Even in an injury-plagued 2018 Donaldson still had a 117 WRC+ and a .203 ISO. The only hesitation I have in embracing this projection is the assumption that Donaldson will have 570 PA. He hasn’t had more than 500 PA since 2016 and while he was able to serve as a DH while in Toronto when he was banged up, that won’t be an option for him in Atlanta. Even so, he hit 33 HR in 496 PA in 2017 so the steamer numbers are within reach for a hitter as talented as he is. A .260/.360/.500 slash line with 25-30 HR seems within reach for him if his body allows.
Other Players Impacted
The three players who could be most notably affected by Donaldson’s signing are Johan Camargo, Dansby Swanson, and Austin Riley. In 2018 Camargo came into his own and not only produced for the Braves but became a fantasy asset for many teams. Since he played 114 games at third base last year he could lose some at-bats to Donaldson, although he is a super utility player and will probably just be moved around on the field to fit his bat in the lineup. So, Camargo shouldn’t be too negatively impacted by the addition. Swanson, on the other hand, could lose at-bats to Camargo going forward. Swanson was terrible at the plate last year with a .699 OPS while Camargo, who played 19 games at shortstop, sported an .806 OPS. If Camargo gets more time at shortstop Swanson could be relegated to a defensive specialist role, eliminating any fantasy value he may have had. Finally, this signing almost guarantees that Austin Riley will get more seasoning in Triple-A in 2019 and won’t be a major contributor for the Braves until at least 2020.