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Blue Jays Mailbag: Extending Josh Donaldson Will Be Pricey, but Makes Sense

Andrew Stoeten examines the cost of a possible Josh Donaldson extension, and discusses Kendrys Morales' future in Toronto.

by Andrew Stoeten
Oct 3 2017, 7:18pm

Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Stoeten answers your questions in our Blue Jays Mailbag, which runs weekly at VICE Sports. You can send him questions at stoeten@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter.

The Blue Jays season is mercifully over, but because there was so little of it on the field this year, that just means this is where the drama really starts.

Josh Donaldson kicked off the offseason with a bang—or, more specifically, a shot across the bow of the Jays' front office—by declaring that he'd be happy to sign a long-term extension here and forgo free agency after next season (if the right deal is offered, of course). And it's from there that we begin our dip into this week's mailbag—the first of a long winter ahead, but one that ought to be full of transactions and intrigue.

If you have a Blue Jays question you'd like me to tackle for next week, be sure to send it to stoeten@gmail.com. As always, I have not read any of Griff's answers.

When players say they 'want to remain with the team' do they honestly mean it or is it akin to playing the first hand in a negotiating game?
Cindy

How much stock should we put into the meeting Donaldson had with Atkins about wanting to stay? The timing is very interesting.
Jason

This may sound like a cop-out, but I think every case is different. I don't doubt that most players who express their desire to stay in a particular place are being sincere, but money still does the vast majority of the talking most times, and surely there is a bit of gamesmanship going on through the media on this stuff as well. So while it's nice to hear that Josh Donaldson would be "tickled pink" if he and the Blue Jays were to come to an agreement on an extension this winter, and that he'd be happy to stay in Toronto long term, that alone doesn't really give us anything to work with.

For example, David Price reportedly would have loved to return, but he was never going to stay for the amount of money the Jays would have felt comfortable offering (which is why they didn't formally offer anything). Edwin Encarnacion seemed very much inclined to stay, but not so much that he'd accept the Jays' four-year, $80 million offer when his camp believed (wrongly, it turns out) that there was still the chance to better that number on the open market. And then there's Marco Estrada, who has proven exceptionally sincere when stating his desire to stay with the Jays, twice foregoing the chance to test the market in free agency in order to re-sign with the club. Nice as that makes it sound, both of Estrada's extensions with the club have been for something very close to what he could have expected on the open market, and the first one was an alternative to either accepting a one-year qualifying offer or going to market with draft pick compensation hanging around his neck. It's not like he's been a selfless servant to the organization, either.

In other words, a player's financial self-interest will always be a part of the equation. It can matter that they like the city and the team and want to stay, but really only to a degree.

That said, there is plenty of good news for Jays fans in this. For one, Donaldson is at least not making the noise that Jose Bautista did in the spring of 2016, about having a strong desire to test the market. And for two, the Jays can certainly make an offer that is in Donaldson's financial interest.

Donaldson was limited to 113 games, but still hit 33 homers with a .944 OPS. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

That doesn't mean it won't be painfully expensive for the club to extend him—perhaps even too expensive for them to be willing to do it—but for both sides it makes a whole lot of sense.

For Donaldson, the fact that the Jays alone can guarantee him money this winter, and eliminate the risk of injury or poor performance in 2018 sinking his market, absolutely has value. So too does the fact that the Jays can sign him to a long-term deal beginning with his age-32 season, instead of his age-33 season, which is what teams will be vying for if nothing happens on this front and he hits free agency next winter.

And for the Jays, nothing would send a stronger signal to the fans—and the season ticket base—about how serious the club is about winning in the next few years, rather than some far distant future, than re-signing their superstar and MVP. And if they could backload the contract until after Troy Tulowitzki's money comes off their books (or defer some of that money), and could give themselves some extra payroll flexibility for the next two or three years by having Josh play at an under-market rate early on in the deal? That would be a huge win.

So... yeah... make this happen already!

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What would a realistic extension look like for both JD + the BJs? Could Pedroia's 2013 deal work (updated for '17 wins/dollars)? pipe dream?
Sami

Very much a pipe dream, unfortunately.

After the 2013 season, as Pedroia was heading into his age-30 year, the Red Sox ripped up the two years and $21 million left on his contract in order to sign him to an eight-year, $110 million extension. The $13.75 million average annual value of that deal is significantly lower than what Donaldson will command—even with his recent comments about wanting to stay in Toronto, he's not going to command anything less than $20 million per year, and more realistically, it's going to be $25 million per year, or maybe more. And because Donaldson is two years older, and the money is that much higher, an eight-year deal simply isn't going to be in the cards.

I know it's weird to compare a hitter's contract to a pitcher, but I look at the contract Zack Greinke got from the Diamondbacks as a pretty good comparable to what Donaldson would command. Like Donaldson is now, Greinke was heading into his age-32 season when he signed that deal. He was coming off a monstrous 9.3 WAR season (per Baseball Reference), and so got top-of-the-market money ($34.4 million AAV) on a six-year deal.*

Now, that was almost certainly an overpay, as the Diamondbacks were keen to steal a key player from the Dodgers, but that is probably the kind of deal Donaldson would be looking at if he hit the open market this winter. Such high figures, both in dollars and in term, probably won't be there for him next winter—and they certainly won't be if gets hurt or doesn't perform to expectations—so I don't think the Jays would have to go quite that high in order to re-sign him, but six years with an AAV closer to $30 million feels about right. And the framework of the Greinke deal might appeal here, too: His is really only a six-year deal in the most technical sense, as $62.5 million of his $206.5 million is deferred. In each of his six seasons he'll actually make closer to $20 million, and then after the deal ends, for five years from 2022 to 2026 he'll receive another $12.5 million per year.

The question is, if the Jays offer Donaldson $180 million guaranteed, how much better does that look compared to his alternative, which is taking the $20 million or so he will make through arbitration this year, and adding that to whatever deal he signs next winter? Will there be more than $160 million out there for Donaldson when he hits free agency heading into his age-33 season? Maybe. Probably. But now let's say that the Jays are only offering $150 million. Is $130 million out there for Donaldson next winter? Of that I'm much more certain. And even if that's wrong and he can "only" get, say, $110 million, that much plus this year's salary gets him close enough to the hypothetical $150 million offer that he's probably justified in taking the risk of hitting the open market.

I'm totally just guessing on this, and I could be way off, but yeah. The $180 million range over six years seems fairly realistic to me.

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Hey, Griff.

Long time reader, first time emailer.

Do you see any way to move Morales this offseason? Maybe in a bad-contract-for-bad-contract kind of swap?

Maybe KC or Detroit would be looking to unload Ian Kennedy or Jordan Zimmermann, respectively? I know those aren't sexy names. But maybe the Jays need an overpaid, declining starter more than they need an overpaid declining DH?

Or do I have to suck it up and accept that Kendrys is stuck here for the next two years?

Thanks.
Darragh

Darragh! Good to hear from you!

As to your Morales question, uh... yeah. The thing is, this is probably going to sound like some "fool me twice, shame on me" kind of shit, but even though Morales had a pretty miserable season, other than the 28 home runs, his Statcast numbers remained pretty damned impressive!

For example, heading into Sunday's action Morales had 43 "barrels" on the season, the same number as a couple pretty damned impressive hitters—Donaldson, Nolan Arenado—and the 22nd most in all of baseball. Among 387 batters who put at least 100 balls into play in 2017, his average exit velocity of 91.1 ranked 11th! The 198 balls to come off his bat above 95 miles per hour ranked him 13th—one spot ahead of Giancarlo Stanton. And though his lacklustre contact numbers hurt him in terms of barrels per plate appearance, at 7.1 he still ranked 45th among those 387 batters.

Morales finished his first season in Toronto with 28 homers and a .250/.308/.445 slash line. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Those are some pretty good indicators, though they're hardly the be-all, end-all, either. There was another player with the same number of barrels as Morales, Donaldson, and Arenado: the Cardinals' Randal Grichuk, who slashed an ugly .237/.285/.467 (92 wRC+). And just behind Morales and Stanton on the 95+ leaderboard is Albert Pujols, the all-timer who looked absolutely finished this season (despite having four years and $114 million still left on his contract—LOL), slashing just .241/.286/.386 (78 wRC+).

So... hitting the ball hard doesn't make a good hitter. Striking it hard and then barely being able to run to first base certainly doesn't help. Nor does having a contact rate well below average, as Morales does. But he's at least not Bautista, who in 2015 ranked 15th by average exit velocity, 14th by barrels per plate appearance, and 13th by 95+, but this season sunk to 119th, 182nd, and 71st. There's something there, I'm just not sure what. And it's at least theoretically possible that you could convince another team to take him, I just don't know which one.

I think that part of what the Jays would tell you they saw in Morales was his value as a teammate and in the clubhouse, for whatever that's worth, so that's still going to be there in 2018. And that, along with the fact that the Statcast stuff probably has a lot to do with why the Jays went so hard after him in the first place might be what makes them a little more inclined to keep him than you are. Morales will still be the guy who produced a 131 wRC+ in 2015 and a 135 mark over the final four months of 2016, which isn't nothing.

Is it worth giving up on that guy for someone like Ian Kennedy, who just had a miserable season (5.38 ERA, 5.61 FIP, 34 home runs allowed and just 154 innings pitched over 30 starts), and is owed $49 million over three years still, compared to Kendrys' $23 million over two? Probably not. Maybe there are other fits out there that would make a little more sense. And I like the idea of getting creative and flipping him for another team's bad contract, and adding a player that better fits the needs of the Jays' roster. But my best guess is that he's here until he proves that he doesn't deserve to be and is released, or somebody like Vlad Guerrero Jr. pushes him out of the role and onto the bench.

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Considering he has options and the Jays newfound depth in the bullpen is Joe Biagini's optimal role as a SP in AAA as the number 6?
Adrian

Is he good enough as a starter to even be a No. 6? It wasn't exactly a great season for Biagini in a starting role. But you're right that the bullpen has been OK without him, and it seems as though he will once again head into spring training as a starter, and we'll see where it goes from there. I think that's the right decision; I don't think it would be the right decision to say today that his optimal role is in the rotation, either here or in Buffalo. If they find enough depth starters to feel comfortable with what they've got, he could absolutely go back to being a weapon in the bullpen. You can never have enough outstanding relievers.

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@Nationals look like they'll have 4 starting-quality OFs next year. Any plausible scenario you see where Jays trade for @AdamSpankyEaton?
Patrick

Nope!

The Nationals gave up a big time pitching prospect in the form of Lucas Giolito, and more, less than a year ago to get Eaton and his very team-friendly contract from the White Sox. There's no reason the cost won't be just as high now, So I really don't see it.

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What happens 1st, Jose opts into his option or the Jays opt out of their option? Will they do it quick or let it drag?
Scott

As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports noted in a free agency primer last September, "the deadline to exercise or decline contract options is usually five days after the end of the World Series, though some contracts specify a different date." So there's nothing to drag out here. Especially since the decision for both parties is as obvious as you'll ever see when it comes to a mutual option. Bautista will opt in, the Jays will decline.