Photo Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

When Josh Donaldson Is At His Best, So Are The Blue Jays

This is one part of an off-season series that reviews how the Blue Jays did position-by-position in 2017 and how they look heading into 2018. 

Josh Donaldson reminded everybody how good he is last summer. During the month of August, Donaldson caught fire and nearly dragged a putrid Jays roster back into playoff contention. He’s obviously a key part of Toronto’s success, but with his free agency looming and the Blue Jays potentially looking to build for the future, his long-term status with the team is up in the air.

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What went down last season

At the beginning of spring training, news broke that Josh Donaldson suffered a calf strain that would keep him out of action for two weeks. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time — largely because nobody wants to cloud the optimism of baseball returning with the worst case scenario of an injury — but this calf ordeal became something that would linger around for quite some time.

The Jays rightfully took the cautious approach with Donaldson because he struggled with a calf injury in 2016 and has a pretty worn down body from his crash-and-bang style of play. Donaldson didn’t get him into a Grapefruit League game at third base until March 20 but was eventually cleared to play on Opening Day in Baltimore.

But just a few games into the season the dreaded calf injury flared up again. In a loss to Tampa Bay, Donaldson busted up the first base line and ended up leaving the game with calf tightness. This was probably the first point, with the team sitting at 1-5 and their MVP still struggling with a nagging injury, that it really seemed like 2017 might not be very kind to the Blue Jays.

Donaldson was scratched from the lineup for the team’s Home Opener and was eventually placed on the 10-day disabled list. He ended up missing a month-and-a-half of action.

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Even when he was back, you could tell Donaldson wasn’t playing at 100 per cent. In June, he had a solid month, posting an .837 OPS with five dingers. But in July, he slowed down, posting a .707 OPS for the month, which is something we hadn’t seen from the former MVP since he joined the team in 2015.

He heated up in August and completely erased his cooled down months from anyone’s memory. In August, Donaldson tore the cover off the ball, clubbing 13 homers and mashing a 1.133 OPS. He damn near singlehandedly (well, with the help of Marcus Stroman, Justin Smoak, and the ‘pen) dragged this sorry ass, injury-riddled roster back from the pits of oblivion.

There was a point in time that the Jays were actually winning more games than they were losing and they even somehow miraculously had themselves three games back of the second wild card. In the middle of that was an MVP performance from Donaldson who truly has the most game-breaking talent on the team. He hits for power, average, plays well in the field, comes up with big plays, and his energy gets the team fired up. It all sounds like a cliche, but when you watch Donaldson at his best for a period of time, you notice. For a few weeks in the middle of the season, we saw the very best of Josh Donaldson and the team was much better because of it.

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All told, Donaldson had a damn good season. He slashed a .270/.385/.559 line and clubbed 33 homers over 113 games. Despite missing a month-and-a-half, Donaldson had only four fewer homers than he did in 2016 and eight fewer than he did in his MVP season in 2015. He was also worth five wins above replacement, good for a tie with Justin Upton and Zack Cozart for 18th in baseball, again, despite missing significant time.

What to expect next season

This is the final year left of control the Blue Jays have over Donaldson before he can hit free agency. He turns 32 in December, meaning he’ll be 33 years old heading into the first season of the lucrative free agent contract he’s eventually going to sign.

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There’s been some rumblings the Jays are, or, well, should look to move Donaldson before they lose him for nothing as a free agent. Many suggested the team should move him at last season’s trade deadline because a year-and-a-half of a stud like Donaldson would net the Jays a king’s ransom of prospects. There’s also a school of thought that the Jays could look to pull a deal involving Donaldson and a player like Jason Kipnis who’s pretty good, plays a position of need, and is under control.

It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t seem like the Jays are interested in going into a rebuild even if trading their best commodity would make them better in the future. And, I mean, you can see why.

Since joining the Blue Jays in 2015 due to an inexplicable act of charity from Billy Beane, Donaldson has been worth 21.4 wins above replacement. The only ones ahead of him are Mike Trout, who’s simply in a league of his own, and Kris Bryant, who played 50 more games than Donaldson over that time. Elsewhere in that echelon of players you have Joey Votto, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor, Justin Turner, Nolan Arenado, and Manny Machado.

How do you get players that good? All of the players on that list, the ones who represent the top 12 in WAR over the past three seasons, were drafted and developed by those clubs. Expect for two. Donaldson and Turner. Turner is L.A.’s version of Jose Bautista. A career scrub who hit his stride after joining a new team. Donaldson was, like I said, an act of charity from Billy Beane. You simply don’t see players like this moved around very often. And when you do, they sure as hell cost more than Brett Lawrie, Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin.

What to expect next year is pretty predictable. If Donaldson is healthy, he’s going to make the Jays better. If he’s at his best and does in 2018 what he did from 2015 to 2017, he’ll help the Jays push for a playoff spot. But beyond that? It gets more difficult.

Like I said, Donaldson is going to be 33 years old heading into the first season of whatever contract he signs next. He’s obviously going to be pricey to keep around and will be highly coveted in free agency. There’s risk in signing an older player like Donaldson to a long-term deal, but there’s also reward considering how difficult it is to find players of his calibre. I mean, Adrian Beltre has continued to be an MVP calibre player well into his late-30s, maybe Donaldson can follow in that path.

If he does end up signing a long-term to deal to stick around in Toronto, there’s a good chance he could go down as the best player in Blue Jays history.