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Third Base Notes: Donaldson, Braves, Bryant, Nats, Castro, Franco

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Now that Anthony Rendon has signed with the Angels, Josh Donaldson is both the top third baseman remaining on the open market and quite possibly the top free agent still available at any position.  There was already enough interest in Donaldson that he was reportedly looking more and more likely to receive a four-year commitment, which is good news for a player who “is seeking the largest possible guarantee” in his next contract, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal writes (subscription required).
The star third baseman just turned 34 this week and, since his injury-plagued 2018 season already cost him his first chance at a big multi-year free agent deal last winter, it isn’t surprising that Donaldson wants to max out his payday now that he is coming off an outstanding 2019 campaign.  Rosenthal hears that “all things being equal, Donaldson’s preference is to return to the Braves,” though if it comes down to a pure bidding war, Atlanta doesn’t seem to have the available payroll to outspend Donaldson suitors like the Dodgers, Rangers, Twins, or Nationals.
The Braves have already spread some significant cash around this winter, adding free agents Cole Hamels, Will Smith, and Travis d’Arnaud while re-signing Chris Martin, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, and Darren O’Day.  As per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez, Atlanta is set to spend just under $142.2MM on player salaries next season, which would be the largest payroll in franchise history.  $142.2MM is a modest number compared to what most contending teams spend, though since there has long been speculation about how much money the Liberty Media ownership group would be willing to allocate to payroll, adding another major contract to the books (Donaldson’s next deal could well be in the area of $25MM in average annual value) might not be feasible, unless other salaries were cut loose.
If Atlanta misses out on Donaldson, they might need to get creative in adding another big bat to their lineup.  Reports from earlier this week suggested that the Braves could look to Marcell Ozuna, though Rosenthal notes that “they currently have only limited interest” in Ozuna’s services.  As for another big third base target in the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, Rosenthal notes that Atlanta is among the clubs who have concerns about Bryant’s declining glovework (as per UZR/150 and Defensive Runs Saved) over the last few seasons.  This doesn’t necessarily rule out a potential trade between the Braves and Cubs since Bryant could be used as a corner outfielder, though it doesn’t seem like Bryant is at the top of the Braves’ list at this point.
Speaking of fallback options for Donaldson, Rosenthal writes that Starlin Castro and Maikel Franco are on the Nationals’ radar as third base candidates.  Washington has gotten long looks at both players from their days in the NL East, though both Castro and Franco would certainly be stopgap options at best given their underwhelming performances over the last few seasons.  Castro has been a slightly below-average run producer (98 OPS+ and wRC+) since the start of the 2016 campaign, while Franco hasn’t lived up his billing as one of baseball’s top prospects, hitting only .249/.302/.431 over 2539 career PA with the Phillies.
In terms of bigger-ticket additions at third base, Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post (Twitter link) reports that the Nationals have yet to touch base with the Cubs about Bryant, contrary to earlier reports.  This isn’t to say that the Nats couldn’t still look into Bryant should Donaldson sign with another team.

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MLB

Ryan Braun Discusses Future – MLB Trade Rumors

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Franchise icon Ryan Braun is entering the final guaranteed season of the contract extension he signed with the Brewers nearly a decade ago. Now 36, the former MVP is nearing the end of a storied career. In fact, it’s not out of the question that 2020 could prove to be his final season, he acknowledged to reporters (including Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) today at Fan Fest.
“I don’t take for granted this could be my last year playing baseball,” Braun told reporters. “It’s definitely a possibility,” he elaborated when asked if he would contemplate retirement after the 2020 season. “We’ll see how the year goes, see where I’m at physically. Obviously, my family’s always my top priority, so we’ll see how everything’s going then.”
Needless to say, that’s hardly a declaration that he’ll certainly hang up the spikes. He added that he doesn’t anticipate making a final decision until after this season, when he can reevaluate his health and family situation as well as the team’s outlook. Braun’s contract does come with a $15MM mutual option for 2021, but mutual options are rarely exercised. Typically, the price point is either high enough that the team would prefer to buy the player out or low enough that the player would rather explore free agency. In Braun’s case, it seems likely the Brewers would buy Braun out for $4MM rather than exercise their end.
That’s not to say, however, that Braun won’t be a key factor on Milwaukee’s 2020 outlook. He’s coming off a strong 2019 effort, in which he hit .285/.343/.505 (117 wRC+) in 508 plate appearances. The club anticipates him taking a similar number of plate appearances this season, he told reporters today. The longtime corner outfielder confirmed that some of that work figures to come at first base, where he’s played just 18 career games (all in 2018). Milwaukee’s corner outfield mix is crowded, with offseason signee Avisaíl García joining MVP candidate Christian Yelich and Ben Gamel. Yelich, notably, is at full strength for spring training after a knee injury ended his 2019 season in September, he told reporters today (including Haudricourt).
Today’s comments from Braun are perhaps unsurprising; that a 36-year-old player may at least entertain thoughts of retirement after the season won’t raise many eyebrows. Nevertheless, it’s notable to hear Braun verbalize the possibility. He is, as mentioned, still a productive hitter. In all fourteen of his MLB seasons, he’s been above-average at the dish by measure of wRC+. He’s certainly unlikely to return to the vaunted offensive force he was in his prime, but Braun still figures to be a valuable player in 2020. Should he again produce at the plate, he’d no doubt draw interest from teams next offseason, if he chooses to keep playing.

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Astros Interview Mark Kotsay For Manager

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The Astros interviewed A’s quality control coach Mark Kotsay last week as part of their ongoing search for A.J. Hinch’s replacement, reports Brian McTaggart of MLB.com (via Twitter). Kotsay becomes the ninth known candidate in Houston’s wide-ranging managerial search.
Kotsay also drew consideration from the Giants and Pirates for their vacancies earlier in the offseason, but he ultimately lost out to Gabe Kapler and Derek Shelton, respectively. He has no MLB managerial expereience, but he’s worked in the Padres’ front office and on the Pads’ and A’s coaching staffs since retiring as a player in 2013.
Kotsay joins Joe Espada, Eduardo Pérez and Will Venable as potential first-time managers to sit down with Houston. The Astros have also interviewed former MLB skippers Brad Ausmus, Dusty Baker, Jeff Banister, John Gibbons and Buck Showalter.

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