Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Review: The end of the Donaldson era was a PR nightmare for the Blue Jays

Hindsight is 20-20. It’s incredibly easy to look back and say that the Blue Jays should have dealt Josh Donaldson last winter because, as we know now, the 2018 season was a fruitless endeavour. But still, given the way Donaldson performed down the stretch in 2017, there was some reason to believe he could play a role in the Jays competing for a playoff spot.  The front office took a risk and it blew up in their face. That’s baseball. You can’t predict it.

Seeing Donaldson get dealt for a Player To Be Named Later stung. It stung because he was worth so much more to the franchise, fanbase, and city a PTBNL and it stung because it officially meant that the glory days were over and there wasn’t anything to show for it. Ultimately, the way Josh Donaldson was handled was the exclamation point on a confusion period of Blue Jays baseball in which the organization went half-in, half-out on a rebuild and put together back-to-back miserable seasons.

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Mark Shapiro’s relationship with Blue Jays fans has always been complicated. He came in to replace Paul Beeston right before the team clinched their first playoff spot in two decades in 2015. He sort of shoved out a local hero in Alex Anthopolous, the one who orchestrated all of the wild deals to give us that magical 2015 team. Being known as a shrewd, penny-pincher from a small market in Cleveland, everyone worried Shapiro would blow up our beloved team to save Rogers a bunch of cash.

Shapiro wouldn’t blow the team up, but he wouldn’t go all-in either. In 2016, the team let David Price walk in free agency, but the Jays made a return to the ALCS with a lot of the 2015 group still around. After getting dropped by Cleveland, it sort looked like Toronto’s window was closing. Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin were getting old and Edwin Encarnacion had walked in free agency, but still, it isn’t easy to blow up a team after they just went on a playoff run.

2017 was a disaster. The Jays came out of the gate 1-9, there were injuries galore, and they were never really in contention over the course of the season. This is where the hindsight goggle come back out. You look at that 76-86 record and think “okay, that’s where you should have blown it up.”

It isn’t that simple. Donaldson was so good down the stretch that he created a reason to believe that the team could compete in 2018. From August until the end of the season, Donaldson played arguably his best baseball as a Blue Jay, slashing .302/.410/.698 with 22 bombs. A full season of motivated soon-to-be free agent Donaldson, a healthy Aaron Sanchez, and some new under-the-radar acquisitions could easily will the Jays into competition for the second wild card.

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Nope! 2018 would also be a disaster. The team got off to a much better start than they did in 2017, but, again, injuries derailed things. Donaldson was hurt during spring training and wasn’t ready for the start of the season. He toughed it out for a couple weeks, but dead arm landed him on the disabled list. He came back for about a month, then ended up on the DL again with a calf injury.

A one-for-three day in an 8-3 loss to the Red Sox in Boston on May 28 would be the last time we watched Donaldson suit up for the Blue Jays. Over the next few months, his value would decline day by day as he sat around in purgatory. That was just the beginning.

The front office banking on Donaldson being a key part of a resurgent 2018 season isn’t the issue here. Like I said earlier, in hindsight, it was the wrong choice, but there was reason to believe things could work out. The real reason this was a PR disaster was the fact the team seemed absolutely desperate to move on from the player who changed everything for the franchise.

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When the July 31 deadline passed and it was known Donaldson value was virtually zero, there was an option to tender him a qualifying offer. Either he would decline and test free agency and the team would get a compensatory draft pick, or he would accept it and the Jays would have one more year of Josh Donaldson. The fans would get another chance to watch a legendary player wear the jersey and the front office would have another chance to deal him to a contender at the deadline.

Instead, they pulled the trigger on a deal prior to the Aug. 31 deadline for a Player To Be Named Later. Rather than investing another year in Donaldson, he was gone. Worse yet, he was dealt, with salary retained, to Cleveland for their playoff run. I’m not a SHATKINS ARE CLEVELAND SLEEPER AGENTS FUCK type, but I can see why this leaves a gross taste in people’s mouths.

So, yeah. There was a lot going on there. It starts with the old regime bringing in the guy who changed everything and it ends with the new regime messing it up and letting him go for nothing. I know, that’s a really simple way to view things, but that’s how most fans are going to remember it. Hindsight is 20-20, but you can’t blame fans for being disappointed in the way things transpired.

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The optimism manifested from Donaldson’s hot finish in 2017 isn’t what people remember. Those who say they wanted the organization to blow it up and rebuild don’t remember being the ones who cried that Shapiro was going to blow the team up a few years earlier. What people remember is the team being bad and missing the playoffs. They also remember Donaldson on-and-off dealing with injuries for two years. They then wonder why the team failed to deal Donaldson at a higher point of value when it was so glaringly obvious there was no reason to keep him around. They then see the PTBNL and say “yep, told you so!” 

Donaldson, right or wrong, is the exclamation point on a confusing and frustrating period in which the organization appeared unsure of what direction they were going. And the result, in terms of optics, was a franchise legend, the guy who was responsible for bringing the team back to life, being dealt to Cleveland for nothing.

  • Flash McLennan

    Yeah, being mad in hindsight about them trading him to Cleveland makes a ton of sense. His 0fer in support of the Indians’ 0fer sure has me hopping mad at all the value that the Shapiro regime gifted Cleveland.

    As for the “could have qualified him” argument, dumber still. Watch the deal he signs. Compare that deal to 1/$18mm. I’ll make a bold prediction: the deal he signs will be nowhere close. Further, the value he produces in 2019 will not approach $18mm.

    Beyond Donaldson? 2015 was great and I love that team. But pretending that Encarnacion, Bautista, Donaldson and Martin, if somehow still together, would have helped in 2017-18, let alone 2019, is about as fanciful as getting WAMCO back together for next year. Time to stop whining, time to move on.

    • R.A.'s Dickey

      Josh Donaldson only played a third of the season, most of it horrendous, and still, according to FanGraphs, provided over $10 million in value. So call me crazy, but I think your predictions are rather poor, especially given how he finished the season after proper rehab.

      • Flash McLennan

        Let’s imagine a world where GMs have a crystal ball, and know exactly how a player will perform in the upcoming year. Do you think there is a single GM who would agree to pay $10mm for Josh Donaldson’s 2018?
        Maybe it’s Fangraphs that needs to check the model. I’m feeling pretty okay about my guess as to where JD’s value is headed.

    • 81Expos

      Agreed Flash .

      Once JD got hurt this year all bets were off. It sucks but that is the way it goes sometime . There are no guarantees. In hindsight could the Jays have traded JD last offseason for a greater return than they received from the Indians on 8/31 ? Maybe. We’ll never know and frankly, as Flash aptly points out above … time to move on.