The Blue Jays' Breakup with Josh Donaldson Was a Total Mess
The Donaldson situation could've gone countless different ways and they all end up with happier endings than this one. Just about everyone loses in this deal.
Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
The knives are out for the Blue Jays front office, with the eleventh-hour trade of Josh Donaldson to Cleveland for a player to be named later serving as the flashpoint. The optics around the deal are terrible, and it is a transaction in which no winners will emerge.
Toronto gambled and lost big on Donaldson this year, betting that his return to health would be the catalyst for one more playoff run with its aging core. Instead, he played 36 unspectacular games for the Blue Jays, a team that has seen nearly everything go wrong this season, most notably this frayed relationship between club and star player.
Trading such an iconic player is never going to play well within the red meat of the fan base, the part that doesn't worry itself with collective bargaining agreements and the nature of outgoing free agent compensation. A very good player was traded, with the Blue Jays kicking in cash to sweeten the deal, and the return is an unknown commodity (though it is believed right-hander Julian Merryweather comes to Toronto when the dust settles.) Merryweather, 26, has yet to reach the majors and missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The fractious relationship between the Blue Jays and some of their fans probably isn't even this nuanced. Simply put, the team, once good, is now bad. When the team is bad, it's a lot more fun to direct some righteous indignation toward the unlikable nerds in charge than bunkering down for a long rebuild.
The timing of the Donaldson trade raises both blood pressures and eyebrows. Instead of moving their star third baseman last winter for a bumper crop of prospects, the Jays front office trudged into the August trade deadline, with a failed attempt at playoff relevance behind them. For a variety of reasons, Toronto made an underwhelming deal—with the former team of president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, to boot—and is paying the public relations price as fans bray for blood, wondering just how Canada's only MLB club fell so far, so fast.
Tabloid columnists and self-admiring sports talk radio type feed this inchoate rage with white-hot takes lambasting the team for trading such an accomplished player for so little, when dealing him months ago was the Obvious Thing To Do.
Straw man arguments aside, just about everyone loses in this deal. The Blue Jays probably didn't need to trade Donaldson but felt much better doing so, rather than risk him landing in their laps again for 2019, this time for $18 million (which is roughly the price of a one-year qualifying offer) and a roster crunch on their hands.
The entire affair saw Atkins air dropped into a vast field of PR rakes, stepping on newer and pointier implements with every movement. The Blue Jays, as an organization, have been unable to curry favour with the fan base because of their meticulous, risk-averse front office and the incorrect colour of their passports (Atkins and Shapiro, both Americans, are the successors of Canadians Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston).
Rushing Donaldson out for a rehab assignment with just days to go before the Aug. 31 trade deadline looked awful, and a constant inability to communicate status updates left to much tea leaf reading among beat writers and dropped fresh blood into the water for the type of people untroubled by shame or the need for context.
Context like, "extending Donaldson a qualifying offer had very serious implications for the roster in 2019 and beyond, to say nothing of their desire to juggle the needs of an ornery franchise great on a one-year pillow contract looking for his only real payday with the developmental requirements of the No. 1 prospect in baseball, the player who quite literally holds the future of the franchise in his hands."
Further crucial context such as, "they had no trade leverage because he hasn't played in months, and even when he did play he was kinda bad, and he only played 100 games last year because of a similar injury." No matter your perspective, it's clear the Donaldson situation could've gone countless different ways and they all end up with happier endings than this one.
Hindsight makes it easy to say trading Donaldson last winter was the smart thing to do. It ignores that what went down in 2018 represents nearly the worst case scenario for both team and player, meaning no one got out alive. The team surely did shop its third baseman all winter long, not finding a deal it liked more than the projected trade offers it hoped to receive in July after four months of healthy, dominant play from the perennial MVP candidate.
Not only must the front office prove to the fans that their vision will produce results in a hurry, they must endure more questions about the way they prepare their players to compete. Stowed away at the club's spring training compound, Donaldson hinted at a deep rift between club and player, suggesting the bleeding edge treatments orchestrated by the organization's training staff weren't performing at such a high level.
Donaldson is left to gamble on himself, hoping his long layoff won't compromise his ability to help Cleveland reach its second World Series in three years. His stock is at an all-time low after his injury plagued 2018, and he not only needs to rebuild much of the good will his play in Toronto earned, he needs to shrug past the quiet fact that he's now been traded twice for what many consider very light packages. What is it about Josh Donaldson that makes teams so eager to see him go?
Blue Jays fans lose because they don't get to root for Donaldson any more. Should he remain in the American League next season, they'll likely learn how easily rooting against the 2015 AL MVP comes to supporters in every other city. They lose because they hate their ownership group, they hate that the former general manager was Canadian and is now thriving in Atlanta of all places, and, most of all, they hate the guys who pushed him out.
Most fans are now either fighting amongst themselves or casting very wary glances at the front office, expressing real doubts about the Shapiro-Atkins regime's ability to turn the club around and slay the giants from Boston and New York.
Cleveland makes out OK, though there are some very real chemistry questions that will need answering between now and the start of the playoffs. They are paying a high price—in that they're paying any prospect price at all—for a player with 159 plate appearances to his credit in 2018, and none in the big leagues since May. There is a chance Cleveland gives up a real prospect for fewer than 50 plate appearances from Donaldson. They're also very much upsetting the apple cart in their infield, moving MVP candidate Jose Ramirez to second base and Jason Kipnis to center.
It's a mess, in other words. A mess the Blue Jays might spend the next few years wishing they'd extracted themselves from earlier, a mess that Josh Donaldson might be happy to have left behind, and a mess that the fans hope Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the rest of the Blue Jays' bright farm system can turn the page on in a real hurry.