Jon Morosi would like to pick your brains, Jays fans! And judging by some of the answers he received, for some of you the vultures won’t be too far behind.
Let’s take a little trip through some tweets, shall we?
Question for #BlueJays fans: Do you believe Jays could trade Josh Donaldson this winter and still rank among the top three AL teams in attendance in 2018? (Toronto has led AL in attendance in back to back years.)
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 27, 2017
On #BlueJays, I’m curious about the extent to which franchise’s renaissance (since 2015) relies on continued presence of a star position player (e.g., Donaldson) or if young fan base and thriving downtown core can sustain strong attendance through rebuild.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 27, 2017
My outside perspective: #BlueJays have one of the most engaged, knowledgeable fan bases in @MLB, and they probably realize winning the AL East will be difficult in 2018 with Stanton in New York and (possibly) Martinez in Boston.
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) December 27, 2017
OK, so those are some pretty good questions and comments, and it’s all stuff that’s pretty central to the Blue Jays’ experience right now. It’s going to be interesting to see where attendance goes this year, especially with the Yankees and Red Sox making the idea of the Jays being competitive for a division title as unlikely as it’s felt for a few seasons.
But where are the Jays at really? And where, specifically, are we at regarding Donaldson? Fans, as you’d expect, have some divergent ideas. This is a fairly representative one, though:
I think most Jays fans with a brain just don't wanna be stuck in between. Nobody wants to go 81-81 for the next ten years. Either add pieces around JD or trade him and build for the future.
— Ty Hilgersom (@tyhilg7) December 27, 2017
Yeah… about that… a couple things:
One, having a true talent .500 team in 2018 is simply not the same as having one in 2008. The extra Wild Card spot means that a middling team doesn’t have to over-perform its expectations by too much to have a successful, winning season with a real chance at the World Series. True, backing into the playoffs isn’t ideal, and burning your best starter in the play-in game puts Wild Card teams at a serious disadvantage, but still, if you can get that shot you take it. You don’t mortgage your future for it, but who’s doing that? And that’s the other thing…
For two, yes, Josh Donaldson is an incredible player, and yes, he has significant trade value. But he’s also only got one year left on his contract. Before dreaming on the riches we think other teams are willing to lavish on the Jays in exchange for their best player, I think fans would do well — as fans should always do — to think about the other side of some of their imagined deals. I know that the Jays aren’t good enough to consider doing this, and that it doesn’t work for their roster, positionally, either, but try this in the abstract anyway: ask yourself, which Jays prospects would you give up for one year of Manny Machado?
Would you give up Vlad? (No.)
Would you give up Bo? (No.)
Would you give up Anthony Alford?
Imagine the Jays are a Machado away from really solidifying their place among the top tier of teams in the AL in terms of projected win total. Imagine Machado had a better season in 2017 than his 2.8 WAR reality — something more like the 6+ wins he was worth in the previous two years. Maaaaaybe you give up Alford.
Imagine Dalton Pompey had a strong, healthy 2017, and so the club could better afford to move a guy like Alford. And imagine that there really aren’t any alternatives out there that will only cost money, or lesser prospects. In that case, sure, maybe giving up six years of Alford for Machado makes sense. Maybe you can even go a little higher — maybe the equivalent of Dan Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt, with Alford taking the headline spot instead of Norris.
That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for Machado, but I could see a team in the right situation being willing to do about as much.
It’s a significant package. It’s a package that has a lot of value, both in terms of what you hope those players will be able to do on the field, and also in terms of allowing you to allocate resources elsewhere because you’ve strengthened your depth in certain areas. It’s helped your team be better in the future, no doubt.
But is losing out on receiving the equivalent of Norris-Boyd-Labourt or Alford-plus-plus (or Drabek-Wallace-d’Arnaud) really going to doom this organization to a decade of Ash- or Ricciardi-esque mediocrity? That’s an enormous stretch.
There is, of course, another familiar comparable, and that’s the R.A. Dickey deal with the Mets. That’s the deal you want to make! But there are a few things to consider on that one, too: One, the Jays were given a negotiating window with Dickey, so the deal wasn’t really for only one year of him. And while the Jays could offer a similar window to a team acquiring Donaldson, hoo boy, the optics of that would be fugly. Two, the final year of Dickey’s deal with the Mets, which the Jays traded for, saw him paid just $5 million. And the extension the Jays signed with him guaranteed him just $25 million. He was (supposed to be) an extremely beautiful, valuable piece on an extremely team-friendly deal — whereas Donaldson is projected to make over $20 million this year and will require a nine figure deal to get his name on an extension.
The Jays didn’t just pay an astronomical prospect price for Dickey’s talent alone, they paid it for his contract. A package like the Mets received is not coming the other way for Donaldson right now. Shit, even if the money was the same, seeing as dealing Syndergaard is probably one of the worst decisions any club has made in the last decade, getting a talent like that back simply isn’t realistic. And getting an upside like his back and then actually hitting on it? Even less so.
If the Jays could get talent like that for Donaldson, sure, trade him. If the Jays could get talent like that for Donaldson, fans imploring the team to punt on 2018 would have a much stronger point.
Unfortunately for them, other teams aren’t stupid.
If you’re “only” talking about the Alfords of the world being the return on Donaldson, what does anybody think that means you get back for J.A. Happ? For Marco Estrada? For Justin Smoak? Yes, you could certainly also move those guys and add some complementary pieces, or maybe even someone with a non-zero chance to be a star. But the idea of reloading and “stacking the deck for a run in 2020,” as one response to Morosi suggested, is just not realistic. At least unless you’re talking about moving a Roberto Osuna, a Marcus Stroman, an Aaron Sanchez — players who will still be under contract to the Jays in 2020 themselves.
A trade of one year of Josh Donaldson, good as he is, is not going to be the panacea that all those oddly rebuild-happy Jays fans — those who just want to turtle for a while until the bad men from Cleveland go away — seem to want to believe.
And none of this takes into account what any of this means for the budget, either. Even if they lose Donaldson at the end of 2018 for nothing, if it comes at the end of a strong season on the field, in terms of TV ratings, and at the gate, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the $20 million that was his salary will go back into 2019 payroll — or something close to it. If they move him and they fold up and attendance and revenue crater, do we believe the 2019 budget will hit the same heights? Probably not. Or what about the $26 million coming off the books for Happ or Estrada? I don’t think they’ll take payroll down to nothing, but in a deeper rebuild would we expect it to stay as high as it is now? I don’t think so. And that has a significant impact on adding talent around Vlad and Bo, too.
Are the players you get back for Donaldson worth the hit the 2019 budget will possibly take as a result? Are they worth giving up on 2018 despite having the 6th best projected WAR in an American League with five playoff spots, and paths still to make that position better?
I don’t think they are. And yet even these aren’t the correct questions to ask, because we’re not yet taking into account the fact that Donaldson could also still be moved at the trade deadline. Granted, he surely won’t fetch quite as much then as now, and his market then could be limited because of things like his health, his performance, or other teams’ lack of need. But we need to think about this too. The above questions then become this: is the difference between what you can get for Donaldson now and what you might get for him at the trade deadline worth the hit the 2019 budget will possibly take as a result? Is it worth giving up on 2018 despite having the 6th best projected WAR in an American League with five playoff spots, and paths still to make that position better?
And also: is the difference between what you can get for him now and what you might get for him at the trade deadline worth giving up the chance to sign him to an extension at some point over the next ten months? (Months during which — if you’ll permit me to get a touch too fanciful — the Jays’ ownership structure may change, which may make the team more able to comfortably do so).
Is it worth giving up all that?
Sure, it could be. If you get offered a Syndergaard-like package for him. Or if you have the chance to spin off pieces that, combined with some of your own prospects, could land you a Christian Yelich, or some other young, controllable star. You could definitely make the case for deals like that if you were the Blue Jays. But are those kinds of deals out there? All signs point to no.
So an Anthony Alford? A Dan Norris? Shit, even if it was both? In exchange for an entire season, probably a good chunk of future budget, the chance to re-sign an MVP-calibre talent, and the chance to make a deal later if need be for something less? Haaaaaaaaard passsssssss.
And so that’s why the Blue Jays aren’t trading Josh Donaldson and shouldn’t be trading Josh Donaldson. Apologies to all the rebuild-heads out there, but unfortunately we’re probably just going to have to watch the Jays actually try to have fun and successful seasons this year and next, and not fade into utter pointlessness for multiple years.