Blue Jays: Josh Donaldson’s latest setback changes everything

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 06: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on from the dugouts the grip on the bat in the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 6, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 06: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on from the dugouts the grip on the bat in the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 6, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images) /

The Blue Jays are in a very tough position with Josh Donaldson and his pending free agency, and his latest injury setback may have just changed everything.

Last week it looked like Josh Donaldson was about ready to return to the Blue Jays and get started on proving that he’s still an elite player when healthy, and arguably the team’s best trade chip this summer. Unfortunately, that trip to re-join the team not only didn’t find him back in the lineup, he had to return to rehab in Florida to keep working on getting back to 100%.

While that was frustrating, it still projected to be a shorter absence for Donaldson, at least until yesterday. The news broke on Tuesday that Josh Donaldson had suffered a setback in his rehab, and that he won’t even be re-evaluated again for another three weeks. That means he’s likely going to be out a month at a minimum, which all but drains any value he may have had before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. In fact, just yesterday I wrote about how time was running out for him to re-establish his value before the trade deadline, and the situation got worse in less than 24 hours.

It’s not that teams won’t believe that he can still hit and contribute to a winning team, but paying any kind of premium for a guy who hasn’t been healthy all year is a scary proposition. There could be GM’s out there willing to roll the dice on Donaldson, but I don’t think they’re going to pay a hefty price tag of young talent in order to do so. It only takes one to make it happen, but without “The Bringer of Rain” proving he can be healthy before the deadline, that greatly limits his value.

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The way this scenario is starting to play out, there’s a good chance that will still be a Blue Jay when the calendar turns to August. That wasn’t supposed to be the plan for this year, unless of course the Blue Jays were in playoff contention. Because they’re quite a distance back in the race, the thinking is that the veteran sell-off will begin soon, and it’ll include plenty of talent beyond Donaldson with guys like J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce, and more being on expiring deals. Donaldson was expected to highlight that list if the team found themselves under .500 in late June.

Now the latest setback to his injury is likely going to take him until the trade deadline, if not beyond it, to get back on the field. While it’s not a career threatening injury by any means, it’s hard to imagine many GM’s being willing to pay much for guy with a question mark on his return date, regardless of how talented he is. We’ve thought we were going to see a healthy Donaldson a few times this season, but I’d argue that August might be the first time that happens all year, assuming he can heal properly this time.

If the Blue Jays try to trade him in August it’s going to be very complicated, especially because the Yankees and Red Sox are going to be engaged in a battle for the AL East. Those two teams would put a claim on him, as would the rest of the potential playoff teams, even if it was just to keep them from their competition. He’s got a big salary this season, but a pro-rated contract for a couple months is a small price to pay to keep a potential premium bat from joining your biggest competition. That severely limits Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins ability to find a good return from Donaldson, as they’ll really only be able to negotiate with the claiming team.

If they keep the 32 year old for the remainder of the year and offer him the qualifying offer, there’s an outside chance Donaldson could accept it. It would be with the idea that another year to prove he can still perform at an elite level, while getting paid at a pretty nice salary, and would be a decent consolation for a tough season. The qualifying offer was 17.4 million for 2018, and will go up again this offseason. It won’t reach Donaldson’s 23 million dollar salary for this year, but it’ll still be a fair chunk of change. And this sounds crazy to say, but it might be more than he could get on the open market this winter, at least on a AAV basis.

For interest’s sake, let’s say that the star third baseman signed elsewhere this offseason after the Blue Jays gave him a qualifying offer. If he failed to sign for at least 50 million, the Blue Jays wouldn’t even get a supplemental first round pick as compensation. In that case the pick would fall after the second round had been completed. Donaldson getting less than 50 million could be a surprising reality, especially if he signs a “pillow contract” to re-establish himself and hit the market again next year.

I don’t believe for a minute that Donaldson is done being an offensive force, but I also watched GM’s stay away from players over 30 this past offseason, and at a more alarming rate than I ever thought possible. Baseball seems to be shifting to a younger man’s game, and paying a premium for a 32 or 33 year old may be a thing of the past. Producing at an elite level can certainly change that to some degree, but Donaldson hasn’t been able to do that yet this year.

If he can’t change the narrative to his 2018 season pretty drastically before the end of the season, there’s a good chance he’ll be in a less than desirable position as a free agent. We saw that happened to Jose Bautista, who had to settle for a minor league contract a couple of times this year to get back in the game. Donaldson’s not going to fall that far from grace, but I’d be very surprised to see anyone offering him 100 million this offseason, let alone the much higher figures that were projected a year or two ago for him.

The whole scenario could very well end up with the two parties making sense for 2019, even if that seemed highly unlikely a few months ago. Donaldson and his agent may decide to take his track record to the free agent market regardless, but with a qualifying offer attached and a questionable most recent year for a veteran turning 33, the QO is a viable option. That seemed out of the question a year ago, but don’t rule it out now.

Next: Blue Jays designate Gio Urshela for assignment

It’s been a frustrating and disappointing season for the 2015 AL MVP, and this latest setback may have changed everything, even more than things already had.