Blue Jays: Josh Donaldson’s dropping free agent value

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being called out on strikes in the third inning during MLB game action against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Rogers Centre on May 23, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after being called out on strikes in the third inning during MLB game action against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Rogers Centre on May 23, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

Entering the final year of his current deal, Josh Donaldson looked to put an exclamation point on his free agent value this season. It hasn’t happened so far in 2018.

The Blue Jays saw 2018 as the potential last shot to contend for this current group of veteran players, especially knowing the quality of talent that waits behind them in the minor league system. The team had many differences from the playoff squads of 2015 and 2016, but even without guys like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, the possibility of making a playoff run felt very real.

Fast forward to the middle of June and the Blue Jays are all but out of the playoff race. In fact, they’ve actually just a 1.9% chance of making the playoffs right now, which is pretty astonishing when you consider how early it is in the season. Combining their struggles with a much stronger American League playoff race, and you’ve got a different reality than you expected.

And speaking of a reality you didn’t expect, we’re still waiting for Josh Donaldson to show the Blue Jays and the rest of baseball why he was the AL MVP in 2015, and one of the best players in baseball in the second half of last season.

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“The Bringer of Rain” was supposed to be one of the headliners of this winter’s monster class of free agents alongside a couple other superstars in Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and maybe a few others like Clayton Kershaw. Donaldson was hurt and somewhat ineffective in the first of 2017, but after the All-Star break he returned with a vengeance, slashing .276/.386/.606 with 24 home runs and 53 RBI in just 67 games played. That’s the kind of production that puts you near the top of the heap.

The Blue Jays elected to keep him around for the final season of his contract with hopes that they could maybe extend him, and also compete this season. Now that the latter is pretty much out the window, they can turn their attention to the former, whether they decide to trade him before the non-waiver deadline or not.

My guess is they’ll shop him pretty heavily and see what they can get in return, but unfortunately it’s going to be pennies on the dollar compared to what they could have received a year ago. Not only is he just a half season away from being an unrestricted free agent, he just hasn’t been that good this year.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he’s entered an early regression or anything like that, but it’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s taken a step back from being one of the top players in the game. That doesn’t mean he’s not still tremendously valuable, but once upon a time there were people floating the possibility of a 200 million dollar contract for Donaldson in free agency. As things stand right now, I’m not sure he’s guaranteed 100 million on the open market.

Looking at how things played out last winter, Donaldson and his agent should be concerned. Teams were very reluctant to pay a premium for a free agent at all, let alone one who is on the wrong side of 30. Donaldson will be 33 in December, and that’s the age range that can give GM’s pause when they think about spending the big bucks. By comparison, Harper and Machado are in their mid-twenties, and investing in them comes with a lot less risk. Add in the fact that Donaldson has battled leg and shoulder issues during the last couple of seasons, and the red flags start to pile up a bit.

I say all this even though I still believe in the former MVP’s ability to be an elite player. I don’t think he’s been 100% healthy yet this year, so judging his production isn’t a completely fair representation of who he is these days. He’s slashing just .234/.333/.423 through 36 games and 137 at bats, adding just five home runs and 16 RBI around his two stints on the disabled list.

However, when it comes to breaking out the chequebook this offseason, those numbers and the more recent injury history will definitely drag down his value. How far? That remains to be seen, but when we look at the relatively small deals that guys like J.D. Martinez (five years, 110 million), and Lorenzo Cain received (5 years, 80 million), don’t be surprised if Donaldson’s next contract is a little underwhelming.

While he and Martinez are very different players (Martinez is a weak defensive outfielder), the comparisons in value aren’t that far off. Martin has earned 13.8 bWAR since the start of the 2015 season, while Donaldson has been worth 21.5 bWAR. While that’s a pretty big difference, we have to keep in mind that bWAR doesn’t reward DH’s much for their work (Martinez has 38 starts there this year), also remember that GM’s don’t care as much about past performance as they used to. If we look at just last year and this year, Martinez has a slight lead with 5.5 bWAR to Donaldson’s 5.4. Granted, Donaldson hasn’t played a lot this season, but that’s still a real consideration. Martinez is also nearly two years younger than the Blue Jay veteran.

It’s entirely possible that Donaldson returns soon and quiets any talk of regression on his part, but there’s no doubt that the way this season has gone so far has hurt his free agent value this winter, and his trade value this summer. He could change the narrative a great deal before then, but my guess is his next contract will be a lot closer to Martinez’s, than the 150-200 million that was being banded about last year.

Next: Blue Jays 2019 roster: One potential scenario

It really is amazing how much a year can change things, for an organization, and for an elite player.