In 2014, Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos placed a call to Oakland’s Billy Beane. Then another. Then a few more over the course of several weeks. His persistence eventually paid off and changed the trajectory of the Blue Jays franchise.
The player that Anthopoulos desperately wanted was a 28-year-old third baseman coming off an All-Star season with the Athletics. But Beane had a simple message, at least at first: Josh Donaldson was not available for trade.
Anthopoulos’ pursuit of Donaldson, and Beane’s retience at trading him, was understandable. Donaldson had hit 29 home runs for the Athletics in 2014, finishing eighth in MVP voting. A year earlier, he had the seventh-best OPS in the AL and was fourth for the MVP award. Most importantly, he was still under team control for another four years, not becoming a free agent until after the 2018 season.
Anthopoulos kept sweetening the deal until Beane finally liked what he saw. The trade became official on Nov. 28: Donaldson was headed to the Blue Jays in exchange for Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Franklin Barreto.
“We didn’t expect him to be available. You don’t really target guys with two years of service and four years of control. You just know the likelihood of getting those guys is so rare,” Anthopoulos said when the deal was announced. “We asked if there was any way they would talk about Donaldson, and Billy emphatically told me, no, he’s not trading him. A few weeks later I asked again, asked if there was any way we could make it appealing for him. It went back and forth.”
The trade’s impact was felt immediately. Donaldson slugged 41 homers his first year with the Blue Jays. He led the American League with 123 RBI, becoming the first Blue Jay to lead the league in that category in 12 years. He was the first Blue Jay ever to lead the AL in runs scored.
With Donaldson in the middle of their lineup, the 2015 Blue Jays were an offensive juggernaut. They scored 130 more runs than any other team and led MLB in homers and OPS by more than 40 points. Alongside José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, the Blue Jays won 93 games, the most for the franchise since their 1993 championship team, and made the postseason for the first time in 22 years. Donaldson was honored with the AL MVP, becoming only the second Blue Jay to win the award after George Bell won it in 1987.
But it wasn’t just the stats that made Donaldson one of the most important players in franchise history. It was the hustle, the passion, and the emotion that he played with. It was him scoring from third base on a popup behind second. It was him taking off from second on a groundball, never stopping as he rounded third, and scoring the winning run to clinch the ALDS in 2016.
Donaldson departed the Blue Jays in August 2018, being traded to Cleveland for what became Julian Merryweather. In parts of four seasons with the club, he hit 116 home runs, batted .281, and had a .931 OPS, second in franchise history behind only Carlos Delgado. A year later, in his first game back in Toronto, this time with the Atlanta Braves, Donaldson was honored with a rousing ovation and a tribute video played on the Jumbotron. In 2021, he and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. swapped jerseys before a Blue Jays game against the Minnesota Twins.
The rest of the pieces of the trade didn't pay off as well. Lawrie was once considered a rising homegrown star with the Blue Jays but appeared in at least 125 games just once over four seasons as his career was bogged down by injuries. He played only one season in Oakland, hitting 16 home runs and batting .260, before being dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He lasted just one more season, playing his last MLB game at the age of 26.
Barreto, a top-100 prospect at the time of the trade, hit just .175 across parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Nolin appeared in just six games for the Athletics before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2016. He played a few years in Japan before making it back to the Majors in 2021, this time with the Washington Nationals. Graveman has emerged as the most impactful player the Blue Jays traded. After four lackluster years as a starter with the Athletics, he's become an elite relief pitcher and played the 2022 season with the White Sox.
There have been other monumental moves made by the Blue Jays over the past decade, including the signing of high-profile free agents such as Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer, and Kevin Gausman. But none of them changed the franchise quite like when Donaldson arrived in town. And it was all thanks to Anthopoulos’ perseverance and refusal to take no for an answer.