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The Atlanta Braves and Josh Donaldson are the envy of baseball

The Atlanta Braves will pay Josh Donaldson $21 million in 2019. This is an unambiguous fact. Someone in payroll will enter his Social Security Number, and he will receive regular payments that will total $21 million. Nobody disputes this.

However, just follow me for a second, because I can think of another accurate way to describe Donaldson’s relationship with the Braves. It might even be more accurate, and it goes something like this: The Braves will pay Donaldson $11 million, Ronald Acuña, Jr. will pay him $5 million, and Ozzie Albies will pay him $5 million. Or, perhaps, Acuña will chip in $3 million, followed by equal amounts from each of his pre-arbitration teammates, like Sean Newcomb, and Albies, with future payments to be made by prospects in the stacked Braves system. This is because for every mega-salary earned by a veteran in a given season, there are usually several young players subsidizing that contract by earning far less than they’re worth. This isn’t an opinion, and there are no judgments being handed down, at least in this article. It’s just how baseball works.

Which means the Braves are the model franchise now. They’re the team living the baseball dream. This is how every organization in baseball wants to operate.

This is not how every organization in baseball will operate, but we’ll get to that.

Before last season, the Braves were a dark-horse pick for the National League East, but the conventional wisdom suggested that their time was coming soon, maaaaybe as early as 2019. Instead, they shot out of the gate and never really looked back, leaving the dysfunctional Nationals and also-surprising Phillies in the dust and wrapping up the division around the second week of September. They arrived ahead of schedule, alright, and arriving ahead of schedule comes with benefits. Benefits like Josh Donaldson. The plan works like this:

  1. Develop prospects who will be underpaid relative to their peers for three to seven years.
  2. Once there are enough prospects to form the core of a contending baseball team, spend the savings on expensive veterans who are a perfect fit for exactly what the team might need.
  3. Ride the combination to the postseason, baby, and hope you keep coming up with enough prospects to keep the assembly line humming.

The Cubs weren’t the first team to do this, but they were one of the recently successful, followed by the Astros, and they were all a part of this new fad “tanking” that teens everywhere have been experimenting with. Follow those three steps, and you’ll be golden. The old way of trying to assemble a contending team by acquiring known quantities is so old fashioned. What the Braves (and Cubs and Astros) have done is streamline the process to eliminate waste. If they had spent the money earlier, they might have had an expensive Jeff Samardzija sucking up the payroll. Doing it in this sequence is much more efficient.

Just look at the Braves’ lineup now. I’m not sure what order they’ll stack Albies, Acuña, Donaldson, and Freddie Freeman, but that is a veritable two-way force in the middle of any lineup. They’ll have speed, defense, and power, and they’re not even close to done with their offseason. If there’s a team that could trade for Madison Bumgarner or Noah Syndergaard, it’s one of the teams hoarding a pile of prospects. Other teams will want those prospects, see, because they’re interested in being exactly where the Braves are, controlling their own destiny.

The Braves are the team on the cover of the glossy brochure, smiling and hugging their expensive veterans and relatively cheap youngsters. It worked for them. Act now, get an early-bird special by registering for their three-day conference before the end of November, and learn their industry secrets!

If that reads like a barely disguised Ponzi scheme, well, that’s because baseball kind of is. The craze now is to do what the Cubs, Astros, and now Braves have done and get to a place of equilibrium, where you can spend and win and draw crowds and be the envy of baseball. The catch is that you have to develop prospects like Acuña and Albies who are capable of winning baseball games when they’re barely out of their teens.

That’s a helluva catch. A lot of teams are trying to do the Braves thing, but they’ll be waiting a long time for their version. It looks great when you’re, say, the Twins, and you’re counting on Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to be transformative talents who will subsidize a Josh Donaldson-type free agent. It looks worse when Sano and Buxton are enigmatic talents who might never be the foundation of a really good team. The Padres are almost there, but they’ve gotten this far before. The trick is to turn those prospects into wins and then hit the free agent market with the confidence of a gambler playing with house money. It’s an extraordinarily difficult trick.

And then there are the teams that won’t ever feel comfortable getting to this second step of “spending money.” The Rays caught a lot of guff this offseason for letting a limited-but-productive player like CJ Cron go because he made too much money, and you know they’re not going to be in the market for expensive players who would make push their 90-win team closer to 95-win teams. The Pirates’ biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history is still Russell Martin and his two-year, $17 million contract, even after they built a young, low-priced team. That will probably be their largest free agent acquisition for a long time, too.

For the most part, though, everyone wants to be the Braves, and the Josh Donaldson deal is exactly why. They have the money to sign a player like this because they have the young players. They have the desire to sign a player like this because their young players are phenomenally talented. They have it all, and now it’s time to attack the remaining holes on their roster with surgical precision. Meet the Braves, who are the new envy of baseball, what with Jose Altuve and Justin Verlander getting all expensive and whatnot. Don’t even get me started with what Kris Bryant is already getting paid and what he wants to be paid in the near future.

No, it’s the Braves. They’re the ideal now, and they’re going to start throwing elbows and push their way to the front of the line. Not everyone can be as rich as the Dodgers and Red Sox, so their only hope is to be the Braves.

Not everyone will be the Braves.

The actual Braves are not sorry about this, and they’ll enjoy their short-term Josh Donaldson as much as you would expect. They’re going to be pretty good, everyone. They’re going to make the rest of the league jealous, if they haven’t started already.

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