By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Josh Donaldson needed the Braves.
The Braves needed Josh Donaldson.
Call this one a perfect match.
The slugging third baseman was officially introduced to Atlanta on Tuesday, joining the team he cheered for as a youngster. Donaldson agreed to a $23 million, one-year deal that provides the sort of flexibility both sides wanted.
“We were looking for a middle-of-the-order bat,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said after a news conference at SunTrust Park, less than 24 hours after the team announced the signing of catcher Brian McCann . “We had to find a way to get it done.”
Donaldson was looking for a team that would pay him big bucks, while giving him a chance to show he’s healthy after three injury-plagued seasons. He’ll make the same salary he received this past season, while setting himself up for a much more lucrative deal if he returns to MVP form.
Plus, he gets to play with his favorite team from childhood. Donaldson is a native of Pensacola, Florida who played his college baseball at Auburn — about a two-hour drive from SunTrust Park.
“I was a huge Braves fan coming up,” he said. “My very first favorite player was Ron Gant. It’s a very full circle from coming to my very first Braves game, my first major league baseball game, when I was about 12 years old to now being 32 years old (next week), being able to wear this jersey and wear it with pride.”
By only committing to Donaldson for a year, the NL East-winning Braves addressed their top priority while leaving themselves with plenty of financial flexibility beyond 2019. They have some of the most talented young players in the game, led by NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr., and didn’t want to make a move that impeded their long-term progress.
“I think it’s a win-win across the board,” Anthopoulos said. “We love Josh. We’re thrilled to have him. But it’s a one-year deal. Beyond one year, we don’t know what’s going to happen, other than we hope we’re pouring champagne over each other’s heads and he’s had an MVP year again. It would be a good problem to have.”
Donaldson was AL MVP in 2015 after hitting 41 homers and leading the league with 123 RBIs in his first year with the Blue Jays. He was acquired from Oakland in a blockbuster deal engineered by Anthopoulos, who was then Toronto’s general manager.
While Donaldson followed up with two more 30-plus-homer seasons, a hip injury in 2016 and a strained right calf in 2017 cut into his production. This past season, Donaldson was limited to 52 games by shoulder inflammation and more calf issues, hitting .246 with just eight homers and 23 RBIs. He was dealt to Cleveland on Aug. 31 and played 16 games with the Indians, enough to persuade the Braves that he’s fully recovered from myriad health issues.
“The sample size was small, but he looked fantastic,” Anthopoulos said. “He looked like the Josh we’ve always known, one of the best players in the game.”
After taking over at the Braves’ GM, Anthopoulos brought along much of the training staff that worked for him in Toronto. That was another factor in Donaldson’s decision to sign with the Braves.
“They know how to keep me on the field,” he said.
Donaldson is not looking beyond 2019, but he doesn’t consider himself a rent-a-player.
“I’m not somebody who wants to bounce around,” he said. “I would hope that this could be the last place that I play. That being said, that’s not what I focus on. I’ve never really focused on free agency and any stuff like that. I’ve focused on going out there and helping my team win ballgames and helping my team become better.”
What about Johan Camargo, who had 19 homers and 76 RBIs in his first full season as the Braves’ third baseman?
Anthopoulos wants to turn Camargo into a super sub who plays all four infield positions, serves as the top pinch-hitter and maybe even gets some time in the outfield. The bench was a major shortcoming for Braves in 2018, which was especially apparent in the postseason when light-hitting Ryan Flaherty was included on the 25-man roster.
“We’re going to give guys more days off,” said Anthopoulos, who described Camargo as “a big part of our lineup. He’s going to continue to play.”
Even though the Braves will continue to pursue additional pitching for both the rotation and the bullpen, Anthopoulos was most concerned about bolstering an offense that ranked ninth in the NL with 175 homers and tailed off significantly in the second half.
The Braves averaged just over 5 runs per game through the first half, but that dipped to 4.35 over the final 81 games. The offensive woes were especially apparent in the NL division series, when Atlanta was shut out twice and scored just eight runs in a four-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers .
“It’s not something we wanted to announce, because we can still improve in the bullpen and in the rotation,” Anthopoulos said. “But the offense, more than anything else, we wanted to protect.”