Blue Jays: Comparing Josh Donaldson’s departure to other star players

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays mimmicks a whistling motion at the Chicago White Sox dugout after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during MLB game action against the at Rogers Centre on April 2, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 2: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays mimmicks a whistling motion at the Chicago White Sox dugout after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during MLB game action against the at Rogers Centre on April 2, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

While trading Josh Donaldson may have been a very unpopular move by the Blue Jays front office, plenty of other successful teams have done the same on the cusp of a rebuild.

When you’ve built a MLB franchise into a winner, it’s really hard to face the prospect of tearing it down and admitting the fact that the competitive window is over. We’ve watched a delayed tear down stall the development of other franchises like the Philadelphia Phillies a few years ago, and what we’re seeing with the Baltimore Orioles this year.

There’s an argument that Blue Jays should have started this whole business a year ago, and with the benefit of hindsight I’d say that’s an accurate statement. Nevertheless, they’re in a position to turn this franchise into a winner in a relatively short order, as long as the plethora of minor league talent they’ve got develops as they appear they will.

The transition is a difficult one, and there are players that inevitably get caught in the middle. There are no guarantees for guys like Justin Smoak or Devon Travis with the Blue Jays, as they could be shipped out sometime in the next year (or two in Travis’ case), or potentially stick around as part of the next generation of this team. Another familiar face from the last few seasons had hoped to be a part of the Blue Jays short term future, and it’s been all over the news and social media for the last few days.

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Of course I’m talking about Josh Donaldson, and even though we’ve learned a fair amount since his trade to Cleveland, it feels like there is plenty more that will come out in the media in the next couple of months. The former AL MVP was clearly unhappy that the Blue Jays didn’t want to prioritize keeping him around, even if the fit was imperfect with the pending promotion of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. next year.

While I understand Donaldson’s position, I’m sure he’ll also understand where Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro are coming from in a few weeks, if he doesn’t already. Baseball is a business, and as the game continues to evolve it’s becoming less common to overpay for aging veterans. Donaldson isn’t over the hill, but at 32 and coming off two seasons of battling injuries, his body is clearly starting to break down even if he has a few productive seasons left in the tank.

I got thinking about whether the Blue Jays owed their former star third baseman something more than he got, and a cleaner divorce certainly would have been nice. Beyond that though, I would argue that Atkins and Shapiro may have just done the right thing, even if it was incredibly difficult to go through with.

Looking at the top teams in baseball this season, there are several examples of their having to make a similarly difficult decision on the road to building their current winner. The Yankees had a second baseman on a Hall of Fame career path in Robinson Cano, but instead chose to let him sign in Seattle for 10 years and 240 million. Would anyone say the Yankees erred in letting their 30 year old star walk? I don’t think so. The same could be said for how the St. Louis Cardinals let a 32 year old Albert Pujols leave for Los Angeles on the same scary contract term and length that Cano received. That one is stinging quite a bit these days too, and meanwhile St. Louis has had some pretty decent success without him.

On the flip side, look at what the Baltimore Orioles are experiencing with Chris Davis right now, the man they re-upped to a seven year, 161 million dollar deal. As bad as the contract of Cano and Pujols look, they’re no match for what the Orioles are going through with Davis this year. Instead of letting him walk when they didn’t like his contract demands a year few ago when he was still productive, they caved and now I’m sure they’ve regretting it.

These cases don’t serve as a perfect comparison with Donaldson for a number of reasons. He wasn’t going to sign a 10 year deal, in Toronto or otherwise, and he probably could have been re-signed for no more than three years, or maybe even the Qualifying Offer would have been enough. However, the similarity comes in the value of letting a star walk before it’s too late. Of the five clubs discussed above (Yankees, Mariners, Cardinals, Angels, Orioles), the teams that let their over-30 stars walk are the ones in the best position right now. I’m not suggesting that’s a universal truth, but it’s definitely something to consider.

It remains to be seen what kind of contract Donaldson will earn this offseason, and how he performs down the stretch will have a lot to do with the term, and the money that his agent seeks this offseason. He’s not far removed from being the AL MVP, and there’s little doubt that he can still help a contender win if he’s healthy.

For the Blue Jays though, his presence wasn’t going to make the difference between a playoff contender and a rebuilder over the next couple of seasons. You could make an argument that he would be a great bridge player to keep around, and I’ve even done that, but I also understand why the front office was willing to let him go, even in the face of certain vitriol from the fan base. Vlad Jr. is the future of third base in Toronto, and if he can’t handle the defensive requirements, there are others capable of serving as a short term solution until other minor league stars are ready.

Next. Ross Atkins- "It will only be a matter of time". dark

It’s never an easy thing to say goodbye to a fan favourite, but when we look at recent examples like how the Yankees handled Cano on the cusp of a rebuild, it’s makes a lot more sense. Even if they made the right choice, that doesn’t make the bitter pill taste any better, but like a shot of Buckley’s, it’s probably for the best.