When Josh Donaldson sat up on stage in Atlanta on Tuesday morning looking like an unmade bed with his No. 20 jersey pulled carelessly over his suit jacket, smiling broadly next to his once and future boss, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the easy reaction was to suggest the Blue Jays blew it. But did they?
It was a mere 10 months ago in Florida that Donaldson and Jays GM Ross Atkins played a round of golf and discussed loose outlines and philosophies surrounding a multi-year contract moving forward for the former AL MVP. Everyone knows that there’s no better place to find out about someone than a golf course.
At 32 years old with, likely, only one more kick at the free-agent can of a huge payday, the two sides back in February differed on length of contract and in the total dollar value. There’s really not much else to talk about in that situation, so with Donaldson trying to bounce back with a healthy 2018 season and the Jays not sure whether they were contenders or pretenders but suspecting the latter, the two agreed to revisit later in the year. It all went downhill from there.
The Jays’ rotation was injured and underperformed. The bullpen closer was arrested and suspended. The defence did not report for active duty and Donaldson began the season with a wounded arm, compounding that with a nagging calf strain for the second straight year. The Jays suffered the biggest gross loss in attendance of any major-league team and management decided to turn the page on the John Gibbons era that included back-to-back American League championship appearances in 2015-16.
Critics ask how the Jays could give up an AL MVP and arguably the most important franchise player of the past four seasons in exchange for a 27-year-old minor-league right-hander, Julian Merryweather, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and has never pitched an inning in the major leagues? Why not roll the dice, have Bringer of Rain play at Rogers Centre in September when he got healthy, then make him a $17.9-million US, one-year qualifying offer? Worst-case scenario he accepts the deal and if healthy the Jays have an all-star for one season with something to prove. That was, in fact, supposed to be the exact scenario in 2018.
Instead, Atkins on Aug. 31 accepted a seemingly meagre return from the Indians as the best offer for a still-injured Donaldson. Had that not unfolded, if the free agent had declined the QO to sign with another major-league team then the Jays would have received a June draft pick between the second and third rounds while his signing team would have lost a first or second-round pick. But by trading J.D. before the end of the season there were no draft picks involved — Donaldson was ineligible to receive a qualifying offer from Cleveland because he was traded in-season — it made the Braves’ decision easier. The cash outlay was their only factor in a no-cap MLB.
The Donaldson return for the Jays? Merryweather had been emerging as a starting prospect for the Indians before elbow surgery shut him down in 2018. A fifth-round pick in June 2014, he had progressed from a fringe prospect outside Cleveland’s Top 30 in 2017 up to No. 17 this year. He accomplished that by adding 3-4 miles-per-hour to his low 90s fastball and refining his secondary pitches. But the California native is now not even in the Jays’ Top 30. Rostered pitchers Sean Reid Foley, Hector Perez, David Paulino, Trent Thornton and Thomas Pannone are all younger than Merryweather and rank inside the club’s elite 30 prospects.
So did the Jays blow it? The bottom line is Donaldson was never going to return to the Jays even if they had made the qualifying offer. Too much pride, plus knowing the organization was about to turn the page. The Jays decided a 27-year-old minor-league starter from the Indians was the equivalent of the draft pick they would have received had they made the QO.
Donaldson could see Vlad Guerrero Jr. looming on the horizon. What’s more amazing is Merryweather was the best offer they got. Recall that the Braves were also in the late August trade mix and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Anthopoulos can now move Johan Camargo to a super-utility role.
If Donaldson had accepted the Jays’ qualifier, he would not have wanted to change positions or DH and the $17.9-million qualifying offer, down from his $23-million salary, the highest for an arbitration-eligible player, would have been unacceptable for a player of his pedigree. Someone would have stepped up with more money than the qualifier as the Braves did, but the fact the trade with Cleveland meant there was no draft-pick compensation attached to his signing did Donaldson a favour.
At Tuesday’s news conference in Atlanta while sporting the Braves jersey, the Florida native spoke glowingly about George Poulis and the familiarity and fondness he had for the former Jays trainer who was fired by the club following 2017 and hired by the Braves when Anthopoulos took over.
Donaldson has, in fact, never been a fan of the Jays’ forward-thinking high performance program under whose influence and training techniques he missed 159 games in 2017-18 after missing just 19 in the four seasons from 2013-16.
There is, of course, no correlation or blame for the shoulder and calf injuries that took him from the active roster. But Donaldson reportedly was not happy with the elapsed time it took to rehab his injuries and the organizational pressure he felt in the summer of 2018 to get back to the majors in time to be traded.
So did the Jays blow it? Not really. The Indians trade in August was the best offer out there. If Donaldson had stayed in Toronto through September, the relationship was already ruined. It would have become an uncomfortable distraction. The trade was the difference between Merryweather and a post second-round June pick that may or may not ever have panned out.
What was immediately clear after the deal is that the Jays are turning the page and heading into a rebuild that will start with a new third baseman — baseball’s No. 1 prospect Guerrero Jr. It’s where they were headed from the day Mark Shapiro was brought on board as team president. It just took a while.
Richard Griffin is a sports columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @rgriffinstar