Ahead of pivotal season, Donaldson arbitration case is unsettling

Josh Donaldson and the Toronto Blue Jays are heading to arbitration for the second straight year, but are not too far apart in terms of monetary terms. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have come to an agreement with six others.

TORONTO – The roster apocalypse facing the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of the 2016 season extends far beyond the looming free agencies of all-star sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Nine players – or 36 per cent of the big-league team – will be eligible for the open market next fall. With $67.5 million in guarantees to just four players for 2017 plus the loonie in the crapper, this is a real precipitous point in time for the franchise, with longer-term repercussions.

Quite obviously there’s much more than one season riding on the upcoming campaign, which is why the exchange of salary arbitration figures between the Blue Jays and American League MVP Josh Donaldson (team offer is $11.35 million; player ask is $11.8 million) on Friday is unsettling.

One way or another, the core is changing next winter, given that also heading into walk years alongside Bautista and Encarnacion are starters R.A. Dickey and Jesse Chavez (also bound for a hearing after asking for $4 million, with a team offer of $3.6 million), back-end relievers Drew Storen (settled at $8.375 million plus $50,000 for each of 35/45/55 games finished) and Brett Cecil ($3.8 million), first baseman Justin Smoak, left-fielder Michael Saunders ($2.9 million) and backup catcher Josh Thole.

Some will be easier to replace than others, but covering all of the potential lost production from Bautista and Encarnacion plus the expected 200 innings from Dickey is near impossible. Should they depart, Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin would be at the centre of a reconfigured core, and with a gap in the farm system unlikely to fill big-league voids that soon (centre-fielder Anthony Alford might be ready in time), building out around them will be tricky.

Under such a scenario, Donaldson becomes all the more crucial to the Blue Jays’ future, yet rather than fully resetting from the acrimonious beginning to their relationship last spring, when they beat the third baseman in arbitration, they’re headed back to a hearing room once again.

Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish handled all of the club’s arbitration-eligible players this year after sharing duties with former GM Alex Anthopoulos last year, and the Blue Jays remain a file-and-trial team, meaning that once salaries are exchanged, a one-year deal will only be settled in a hearing room. A rethink of that approach may come down the road once new president and CEO Mark Shapiro is more settled, but at this point it’s status quo in that regard.

Given that the Blue Jays and Donaldson are only $450,000 apart, that’s a real shame, since little good comes from taking any player, especially one who helped carry the team to its first post-season berth since 1993, into a hearing room.

Likely to make things worse is that the Blue Jays’ initial offer to Donaldson is said to be $11.275 million, meaning they made little movement toward the midpoint with the all-star third baseman. The pivotal comparable in this case is the slightly more than $7 million raise Chris Davis received from the Baltimore Orioles following his monster 2013 season, a record for second-year arbitration-eligible position players.

The Blue Jays refused to exceed that amount, perhaps thinking that any premium for Donaldson’s MVP award and strong defence at a tougher position is balanced out by Davis’ 53-41 edge in home runs and 138-123 difference in RBIs.

Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, but much like forcing a move from left field to DH on George Bell in the spring of 1988, this isn’t the ideal way to treat a reigning MVP.

In theory, an arbitration hearing can be compartmentalized as simply part of the business without risk of spilling over to affect the relationship between player and team.

Some can pull that off, as Donaldson showed last year when he delivered a brilliant season after seeking $5.75 million but losing when the Blue Jays countered at $4.3 million (arbitrators must pick one number or the other). But in all relationships disagreements leave scars, and if the franchise is going to build around Donaldson, not finding middle ground on such a small gap is sure to create baggage.

The flip side is that every dollar counts right now for the Blue Jays, who depending on how the Donaldson and Chavez cases play out, have between $130-$131 million guaranteed to 18 players (factoring in the $2.1 million the Washington Nationals are sending the Blue Jays to balance out the difference in salaries between Storen and Ben Revere, who settled at $6.25 million).

Add about $5 million more for 0-3 service time players, and the Blue Jays would be left with $4-$5 million based on an estimated payroll of $140 million. That may be money Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins are holding back for in-season deals, much like Anthopoulos did last year. Either way, winning or losing both cases represents a potentially significant swing in their spending power.

The better the Blue Jays play on the field, the more money they’ll make, thereby improving their shot at retaining Encarnacion and Bautista. Both want to stay put, which matters, but there’s a budget for 2017 and beyond to consider, and the dollars must be allocated wisely, especially with so many pitching prospects sacrificed for last summer’s trade deadline reinforcements.

The comeuppance there is just starting, and all those elements provide the context through which future decisions must be made. For now, the Blue Jays must make the most of 2016 before the player-control cycle guts the roster, and if they can avoid an arbitration hearing room with Donaldson, too, all the better.