How Josh Donaldson’s signing with the Braves impacts Dansby Swanson and Johan Camargo

On Monday, the Atlanta Braves agreed to a lucrative one-year deal with free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson that will pay him $23 million in 2019. Adding Donaldson to a lineup that includes Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. may prove to be the move that cements Atlanta’s place at the top of the National League. But the signing could precipitate another notable development: the benching of shortstop Dansby Swanson.

Swanson has disappointed since a brilliant 38-game cameo in 2016. Last season he posted an 88 OPS+, running his totals to .235/.308/.359 with 20 home runs and 13 steals (in 20 tries) in more than 1,000 plate appearances over the past two years. Those marks are below what the Braves expected from Swanson when they nabbed him in the Shelby Miller trade. Of course, there’s no sense giving up on Swanson yet — he’ll play next season at age 25 — but by adding Donaldson, the Braves have created a contingency plan if Swanson continues to struggle.

Although Johan Camargo’s name isn’t as famous as some of his teammates’ — including Swanson, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft — he’s developed into a quality player. He’ll enter next season with a 112 OPS+ in nearly 800 plate appearances, and, as a switch-hitter, has provided production against lefties and righties alike. Camargo is likely to slot into a role similar to the one filled by Marwin Gonzalez and Ben Zobrist in the past, where he plays all over the diamond.

But if Camargo keeps hitting and Swanson keeps not hitting, would the Braves make a change? It’s a question worth pondering, both next summer and now, in the abyss that is late November.

Camargo has ample experience at shortstop thanks to his prospect days. He isn’t as fast as Swanson, and is guaranteed to be an inferior defender if he were asked to man the position full-time. Yet the Braves wouldn’t necessarily have to insert Camargo at short if they made a move. Rather, they could place Camargo at second and slide Ozzie Albies — someone who, again, played a lot of shortstop in the minors — across the bag if such a change made sense.

The Braves’ openness to such changes could be tipped over the coming months, depending on how seriously they pursue another corner outfielder. If the Braves don’t add anyone of note, then Camargo could be asked to do heavy lifting in a platoon with Adam Duvall. If, however, Atlanta adds a starting-caliber outfielder — or at least someone who could fill the role if need be — then the Braves could be signaling that they know Camargo’s future could be on the dirt.

To state the obvious: The Braves would prefer that Swanson plays well enough to avoid these measures. (They would also prefer that Donaldson stays healthy, freeing up Camargo to play wherever.) Still, teams have to plan for injuries and underperformance, and building a roster that can limit exposure is a smart and subtle way of fortifying one’s playoff chances. Donaldson’s addition is (rightly) going to be viewed as the Braves adding a potential impact-level talent to their already-good lineup — just don’t sleep on it also being an important piece of depth-building that could provide better cover if and when something unfortunate occurs. 

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