With the 40-man roster move designating reliever Julian Merryweather for assignment to make room for 1B/DH Brandon Belt, another trade tree comes to an end for GM Ross Atkins. Merryweather will be placed on the waiver wire assuming a trade partner isn’t found.
With that seemingly innocuous transaction, so ends the Josh Donaldson for a player to be named later trade tree that helped to set the Blue Jays back a few years in their rebuild. This needs to be acknowledged again now, because Merryweather was, in fact, that PTBNL.
Along with the July 2019 trade deadline move of starter Marcus Stroman for Anthony Kay (also DFA’d this offseason) and Simeon Woods Richardson (traded along with 2020 fifth overall draft pick Austin Martin in the José Berríos deal), and the non-trade of Ken Giles in the 2019-20 offseason when he was the top available closer on the trade market, that’s three trade trees that eroded the talent level of the Blue Jays organization, delaying the start of the current competitive window.
As a result, the team has been forced to trade a steady stream of prospects for MLB-level talent like Berríos, Matt Chapman, Whit Merrifield, Mitch White and Daulton Varsho. That’s further diminished the farm system’s ability to produce waves of MLB-ready talent, and has led to an aggressive CBT (“luxury tax”) payroll expansion to a projected $242M for 2023 after signing marquee free agents like Hyun Jin Ryu, George Springer, Kevin Gausman, and Kevin Kiermaier and Belt this offseason.
For context, the 2017 Blue Jays finished fourth in the AL East, 17 games back of the Red Sox. By the trade deadline in July 2018, with the team at 48-58 and 25.5 games back of Boston in fourth place, the rebuild was clearly underway: Closer Roberto Osuna was traded to Houston for Giles, David Paulino and Héctor Pérez; Steve Pearce was dealt to the Red Sox; J.A. Happ was moved to the Yankees and Seunghwan Oh went to the Rockies.
That August 31st, the Blue Jays dealt former AL MVP Josh Donaldson and $2.7M in cash considerations to Cleveland for a PTBNL. According to former Mets GM Steve Phillips, the “Blue Jays shouldn’t have been allowed to make the trade with [Cleveland] or with any other team.”
Instead of asking for a young starter in the Cleveland system at that time like Triston McKenzie (who pitched at A+ in 2017), Aaron Civale (A+), Sam Hentges (A-), or a flame-throwing minor league bullpen arm like James Karinchak (A-), Atkins asked for a 26 year old who’d had Tommy John surgery six months earlier, who’d put up a 6.58 ERA in 16 starts and 78 innings in Triple-A in 2017, and who had never reached the majors.
Merryweather had a 5.64 ERA and 4.36 FIP over 52.2 innings as a Blue Jay, with -0.2 bWAR. Donaldson had a +0.4 bWAR in just 60 PAs with Cleveland that September and went on to a 5.4 bWAR the following season in Atlanta as the Braves won the NL East pennant. The Jays could have made him a $17.9M qualifying offer (QO) in November 2018 if they hadn’t traded him, which would have resulted in compensation draft pick in the 79-83 overall pick range if he’d declined the offer.
The opportunity lost from a non-trade in 2017 or ahead of the 2018 season is probably the worst part of this transaction: Donaldson was a former MVP, a three time All-Star from 2014-2016, and was coming off a 4.6 bWAR season in 2017, slashing .270/.385/.559/.944 with 33 HRs and 78 RBIs and an OPS+ of 148 over 113 games and 496 plate attempts. He was 32 in the 2018 season.
Atkins could have potentially traded him to St. Louis for prospect Jack Flaherty and another prospect ahead of the 2018 season according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. Instead the Jays waited, hoping to leverage their return at the July 2018 trade deadline. Unfortunately, Donaldson played only 36 games before landing on the IL in late May with a calf injury, and his trade value collapsed. And Nightengale would later be proven correct about both Donaldson and Curtis Granderson being traded ahead of the August 31, 2018 deadline for post-season-eligibility for players who’d cleared waivers, so his “Jays official” source proved accurate.
Flaherty went on to make 28 starts for the Cardinals in 2018, pitching to a 3.34 ERA and 3.86 FIP over 151 innings as a 22 year old. He added 3.2 bWAR that year, and the following year in 2019 helped lead the Cardinals to the NLCS with a 5.8 bWAR on an 11-8 record and 2.75 ERA, 3.46 FIP and NL leading 0.968 WHIP over 33 starts and 191.1 innings.
By contrast, the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East for a third consecutive season in 2019, going 67-95, 36.0 games back of the Yankees. Arguably trading Donaldson ahead of the 2018 season to St. Louis and trading Giles ahead of the 2020 season when he was the top closer available on the trade market would have created more value than Merryweather.
All-Star players such as Donaldson and Stroman didn’t return good prospects, delaying the rebuild and the current competitive window. Unfortunately, the since DFA’d Merryweather and Kay, and the non-return for Giles who was subsequently injured in the 2020 season, did not help to improve either the farm system or the talent level of the 26-man roster.
Donaldson has gone on to subsequent contracts worth $115M and a bWAR of 12.0 in his post Jays career. Stroman has earned $91M guaranteed since leaving Toronto, with a bWAR of 7.2. Unfortunately Merryweather, Kay and Woods Richardson added -0.2 bWAR combined as Jays. Berríos remains as part of their Stroman trade tree, but only has a 0.8 bWAR as a Blue Jay so far. And none of the players acquired for Roberto Osuna remain with the organization.