Braves eyeing Acuña-Donaldson-Freeman trio to top 2019 lineup

ATLANTA — The last time Josh Donaldson hit second in a major-league lineup on a daily basis he took home a league MVP trophy, logged another top-five MVP finish, captured two Silver Slugger awards and made two All-Star appearances. The Atlanta Braves plan to hit their new right-handed slugger in his comfort zone.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos’ preference is to hit Donaldson between outfield phenom Ronald Acuña Jr. and perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman at the top of Atlanta’s 2019 lineup.

“My opinion: Getting your best hitters the most at-bats makes the most sense,” Anthopoulos said during a pre-Winter Meetings media session at SunTrust Park. “Now if we end up with starting off a game with Acuña, Donaldson, Freddie Freeman, the guy on the other side’s not feeling good. You look at momentum, the team that scores first and all that. It’s pretty good.”

Anthopoulos stressed that manager Brian Snitker will end up making the final call on the team’s lineup. Snitker is also considering hitting Acuña in the cleanup spot behind Freeman with either Ender Inciarte or Ozzie Albies reclaiming the leadoff role.

The franchise continues to be “pretty active” in the outfield market — both in terms of monitoring trade options and free agents — which could influence the decision before Opening Day.

Acuña hit his 2018 Rookie of the Year stride after making a full-time move to the top of Atlanta’s lineup. Of the 22 players who logged 300 or more plate appearances hitting first last season, only American League MVP Mookie Betts was more productive than Acuña, who posted a 1.042 OPS with 19 home runs in 67 games. No other leadoff hitter approached the same stratosphere as Acuña and Betts with St. Louis Cardinals star Matt Carpenter ranking a distant third.

Donaldson has been the game’s second-best No. 2 hitter since he climbed up to the majors, ranking behind only Mike Trout in weighted runs created plus — hitting 54 percent above league average from the 2-hole — with a .385 on-base percentage and .556 slugging percentage in 1,885 plate appearances.

That combination of power behind Acuña and on-base ability in front of Freeman, one of the game’s preeminent offensive threats in his own right, could give Atlanta an elite top-of-the-order situation comparable to 2018 offensive powerhouses Boston and Houston.

Last season, the Braves received a .282/.346/.471 slash line from the first three spots in the lineup — top-10 marks in virtually every notable offensive category despite poor production at leadoff prior to Acuña moving up and a season-long rotation at the second spot with no clear-cut answer emerging. The front office believes it found that answer with Josh Donaldson signing a one-year, $23 million contract.

“If those three guys get the most at-bats on the team I think we’re going to be in good shape,” Anthopoulos said.

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