Josh Donaldson

With Josh Donaldson in tow, the Braves are putting the National League on notice

With Josh Donaldson in tow, the Braves are putting the National League on notice

While most Cubs fans are focused on Bryce Harper or the Cardinals or Brewers, the Atlanta Braves just put the baseball world on notice.

The Braves inked former AL MVP Josh Donaldson and veteran catcher Brian McCann to a pair of one-year deals Monday afternoon, totaling $25 million (Donaldson will make $23 million). 

McCann may be 35 by next year and Donaldson will be 33 and coming off a season in which he played only 52 games due to injury, but they will provide valuable veteran leadership and approach to a Braves team with one of the youngest rosters in the game, headlined by two exciting young stars in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies (who will be 21 and 22 on Opening Day, respectively).

The Braves already won 90 games last season before losing to the Dodgers in the NLDS and the only main pieces they're losing to free agency are Nick Markakis and catcher Kurt Suzuki (who has already signed with the Nationals). They can now slot Donaldson in behind Acuna, Albies and superstar Freddie Freeman (.946 OPS the last three seasons) atop the batting order.

Donaldson could've been a great fit on the Cubs, though they were not linked as a major player for him prior to the one-year deal with the Braves. For a team with financial constraints that may take them out of the market for the top hitters like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Donaldson could've been a real nice "Plan B" of sorts (though obviously not for $23 million/year), something our David Kaplan was all about

The former Cubs farmhand (he was traded to Oakland for Rich Harden in 2008) has only played 165 games the last two seasons, but hit 41 homers with 101 RBI, 95 runs and a .900 OPS in that time while also rating as a positive defender at third base. During his heyday with the A's and Blue Jays (2013-16), Donaldson posted an .893 OPS while averaging 33 homers and 103 RBI and finished no lower than 8th in the AL MVP voting — taking home the accolade in 2015.

With his injury woes, Donaldson undoubtedly would not have received $23 million per season for multiple years, but this was a nice boom-or-bust gamble for him as he bet on himself in a big way. For the Braves, it's a low-risk, high-reward move that could pay off in a huge way. And if it doesn't or Donaldson gets hurt again, they don't lose anything beyond 2019.

As for McCann, the Cubs are in the market for a veteran backup catcher to give Willson Contreras some rest and the 34-year-old would've made a lot of sense. His production fell off with Houston in 2018 as he failed to hit at least 18 homers in a season for the first time since his rookie year of 2005. Known as a valuable defender with some pop, McCann still has plenty to offer a contender and for $2 million, the risk is essentially nonexistent.

But he clearly wanted to return to Atlanta — where he spent the first 9 years of his career — and will now pair with former White Sox backstop Tyler Flowers to help lead a young pitching staff.

Also, there's this:

The Cubs play the Braves real early in 2019 - the second series of the year from April 1-4 in Atlanta - and then will host Donaldson and Co. from June 24-27 at Wrigley Field.

Josh Donaldson comes off the free-agent market, but could he be a White Sox possibility a year from now?

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USA TODAY

Josh Donaldson comes off the free-agent market, but could he be a White Sox possibility a year from now?

Josh Donaldson won't be playing third base for the White Sox in 2019.

A potential option for the South Siders this winter — and given their financial flexibility, who isn't? — came off the board Monday as one of the bigger free-agent dominos fell: Donaldson is heading to the Atlanta Braves.

Donaldson likely would have been in a similar class to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this offseason had he stayed healthy during the past two seasons. Alas, he didn't, only playing in 113 games in 2017 and just 52 games in 2018. Those health concerns for the soon-to-be 33-year-old might have been enough to scare plenty of teams away. But not the Braves.

The White Sox don't have an immediate need at third base, necessarily, but their long-term future there is a mystery, one of the main reasons Donaldson seemed like a possibility this winter. Jake Burger, last year's first-round pick, suffered a pair of Achilles tears earlier this year. Yolmer Sanchez had a disappointing 2018. The White Sox might move Yoan Moncada to the hot corner as middle-infield prospect Nick Madrigal makes his way toward the majors.

Given what Donaldson has done in his career — he slashed .284/.375/.518 with 131 homers and 413 RBIs during a four-year stretch from 2013 to 2016 — he could still have plenty of pop left in his bat. And maybe we'll be talking about Donaldson, who has finished in the top eight in MVP voting a whopping four times, as an option for the White Sox a year from now, when he hits the free-agent market again (along with other star third basemen Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon). That figures to be the point of his one-year deal, so he can prove he's healthy and deserving of a big contract ahead of the 2020 season.

So don't throw away your pitch to convince Donaldson to come to the South Side. You might need it next winter.

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Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

Cubs understand there is no 'silver bullet' to fix offense for 2019

The Cubs aren't sharing exactly how they plan on ensuring their offense doesn't break in 2019. 

Which makes sense: Why make your adjustments and gameplans public months before the season even starts?

But the tone about the lineup has changed a bit since the Cubs managed just one run in 13 innings against the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild-Card Game last month.

The day after that disappointing end to the season, Theo Epstein was honest and straightforward about the lackluster Cubs offense and his comments teased the potential for a lot of change to the lineup this winter.

The comments from Epstein's front office have softened since then as they realize the need for patience right now. After all, there's still plenty of reason to be excited about all these young hitters. 

It's entirely possible — maybe even likely — that 2018 will go down as the worst season in the respective careers of Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras and it's not as if guys like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ suddenly lost their power stroke even if their homer totals took a dip. 

And even though the Cubs aren't interested in putting all the blame on former hitting coach Chili Davis, they still felt like he simply didn't mesh with some of the players and wasted no time making a change on Joe Maddon's staff.

"Obviously we didn't hit for as much power as we did the year before," GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month. "Blaming that or assigning that to a hitting program is dangerous. Everyone likes homers — it's not like anyone is preaching not to hit homers. We couldn't really pinpoint exactly why we didn't hit the second half of the season. And there's no silver bullet, I don't think, to fix that.

"But obviously we made a change with Chili. Chili's a great hitting coach, but for our group, we felt like returning to some of our roots and going back and getting [new hitting coach Anthony] Iapoce is the right thing to do. But it is difficult.

"Our individual players themselves in many instances struggled — how much of that is based on a hitting program and how much of that is based on individual struggles? That's what we're trying to figure out."

There may not be a silver bullet to solve the Cubs' hitting woes, but there are certainly areas that could make a huge difference instantly. A free agent market packed with hitters like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson provides plenty of options for the Cubs to upgrade their lineup.

If the current financial landscape takes the Cubs out on those big fish, there are other established veterans out there who may settle for a more reasonable contract (think: Nick Markakis). 

Then there's the trade market, where the Cubs could shake up their lineup by dealing for a different type of hitter that may fit better in an offense with a lot of boom-or-bust type players.

Of course, there's also the patience approach.

"I feel really comfortable where we are with our offense," Hoyer said. "I mean, you look around the diamond — all the guys have performed in different years exceptionally well. They're still young. It's about getting that group to gel as a group.

"In the second half, we kinda cratered. A number of guys underperformed. I think we have a plenty good offense if we don't add another hitter. That being said, we'll look around; we'll certainly have discussions, but our focus really is on our own guys."

Even with their own guys and all the first-round picks on the roster, the Cubs still felt the need to trade for Daniel Murphy in August and wound up playing him almost every day down the stretch because of how important they felt his bat/approach was to the lineup. In 2017, Jon Jay provided a lift and in 2016, it was Dexter Fowler and the veteran combination of David Ross and Miguel Montero at catcher. 

The Cubs figure to add at least one veteran hitter to this lineup for 2019 — a guy that can offer a consistent approach and deliver a quality at-bat. And they're also considering deploying a more stable lineup, which could help all those young hitters. 

But the major difference for this offense will be about a return to health for Bryant and guys like Contreras, Schwarber, Happ and Albert Almora Jr. taking a step forward and making the necessary adjustments.

So what have the Cubs learned about that late-season offensive downturn?

"We were assessing it every day as it was going on, so it's not like you sit down and find out all the answers," Epstein said at the MLB GM Meetings. "But I think through some of the exit interviews, I definitely learned some things. Some of the stuff I don't want to talk about publicly before we make some adjustments and roll it out for the players, but I think in general terms, the deeper we dug, the more we realized we have a ton of talent offensively with the position players group. Which — in a lot of ways — should be the strength of this team. 

"...For a few different reasons, it fell apart down the stretch and we weren't able to make an adjustment and pull ourselves out of it. Some of it was just mechanical or approach adjustments that need to be made and some of it was environmental. 

"And I will say we've already had three players — when I walk down to the clubhouse, I keep hearing balls being smacked off the tee and guys taking batting practice already — which I don't know if it's a good sign or a bad sign. I like what it means about the work ethic and how serious these guys are about getting better and making some adjustments and remembering that feeling about what it's like to walk off the field after losing the Wild-Card Game. 

"I don't know what it means about rest, so we gotta — and we are — making sure guys don't start too soon because I think we have a lot of players eager to have a really productive winter and come back better next year."