TORONTO – Praised by Jose Bautista and R.A. Dickey as the type of player who can make a difference for the Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Donaldson appears to be headed for a salary-arbitration hearing as one of the introductory acts with his new team.
Neither the all-star third baseman nor infielder Danny Valencia reached agreement on a 2015 contract prior to Friday’s filing deadline, and club policy under GM Alex Anthopoulos is once numbers are exchanged, it’s either a hearing room or a multi-year deal.
The former, which is far more likely than the latter, is by no means an ideal way to start a relationship with a cornerstone player under club control for the next four years. Reliever Bill Risley in 1997 is the last Blue Jays player to end up in arbitration, although Jose Bautista came close in the spring of 2011 signing a $64-million, five-year contract extension.
Donaldson is seeking $5.75 million while the Blue Jays countered at $4.3 million, and Valencia asked for $1.675 and the team responded with $1.25 million. The arbitration panel must pick one or the other during the Feb. 1-21 hearing period.
Despite the significant gaps, Anthopoulos doesn’t see any risk of business getting personal.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve watched a lot of arbitration hearings as an AGM and I think there are lot of myths about what gets said and how it gets done. We’re going into a hearing and everyone is saying the player should get a raise from what he got last year, we’re just trying to come up with what the right amount is. … You always hear all these things and (in the hearings he watched) it wasn’t even close to what was portrayed in the media, and what I expected, to be honest with you.
“That’s not the way we personally do things, Josh is a part of our team, we’ll have him in spring training, this is part of the process, and one way or another we’ll have a salary for him.”
The Blue Jays avoided arbitration with their three other eligible players: Marco Estrada ($3.9 million), Michael Saunders ($2.875 million) and Brett Cecil ($2.475 million).
No matter how the business end plays out for Donaldson, projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn $4.5 million this season, that will do little to temper the enthusiasm over his acquisition from the Oakland Athletics and the free-agent signing of catcher Russ Martin.
In town Friday to help launch the Blue Jays’ annual Winter Tour, Bautista and Dickey both expected the moves, among others, to pay big dividends in the upcoming season.
“The way I hope they impact the team is by doing what they’ve done in the past with other clubs and doing it here – just by doing that it will be a huge influence on, I believe, our wins and losses at the end of the season,” said Bautista. “Everybody knows what Russell Martin can do as an offensive player, but to me the biggest impact he’s going to have is with our pitching staff.
“He’s great defensively, people know that as well, but it’s one of the things that gets overlooked in baseball a lot, the effect of a catcher on a particular pitching staff, especially now that pitching is on so much of a high, and hitting is on so much of a low. Whoever has the upper hand on pitching is going to have a pretty solid and consistent season. With him aiding our great pitchers and just making them better, it’s going to be a huge addition for us.”
Dickey echoed similar sentiments in reflecting on the winter’s turnover – with Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and prospect Devon Travis among other notable additions, and Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, Melky Cabrera and Casey Janssen among the departures.
“We’ve been (together) two years now and there needed to be somewhat of a shakeup,” he said. “Nothing against any of the guys that left, just sometimes you need a change of scenery and credit to Alex that he was able to pull off the Donaldson deal – that was a nice deal for us I feel like. Brett’s going to be a great player regardless of where he goes but for us right now, for what we need, it’s fantastic that we got a player like Donaldson.
“And Martin’s going to be a great general out there. Having played against him a lot, I can tell you he cares about the things that make people good, and that’s a good thing for us.”
What would be better is if Anthopoulos manages to add a reliever or two to a bullpen the GM has described as a weak point in 2014. The challenge is the Blue Jays, with $117.35 million committed to 14 players pending the Donaldson and Valencia cases, are believed to have roughly $5-7 million remaining to spend, and the free-agent market has few remaining appealing candidates.
As things stand now Estrada, who may end up as the fifth starter depending on what happens with Aaron Sanchez, is the club’s only significant relief addition, although the Blue Jays have a wide array of candidates to fill vacancies created by the departures of Janssen, Dustin McGowan and Sergio Santos.
The uncertainty about the bullpen beyond Cecil, Estrada, Aaron Loup, Chad Jenkins and Todd Redmond leaves Dickey with “questions maybe, not concerns.”
“The guys that we have down there I feel are incredibly capable,” said Dickey. “In a perfect world I think you’d like to see an addition at the back-end. You lose a guy like Casey who’s been such a consistent and dependable presence. He had kind of a tough second half, but he’s got great pedigree so you’re hoping to be able to replace that with something that’s going to be at least comparable if not better. So you’d like to see an addition, but you also got an arm down there that’s capable of doing some pretty special things if you leave him there in Sanchez.”
Bautista pointed out that “selection at the end (of camp) can dictate maybe some of those feelings” about the bullpen but insisted that he “wouldn’t lose any sleep over a bullpen.”
“We have plenty of great options,” he said, adding later: “They have to perform and there’s no way to predict what the results are going to be, especially with the bullpen being one of the toughest things to get consistently right on a team. There are too many variables that can throw their results off. Who’s to say you can’t roll out with a bullpen full of rookies and be great or a bullpen full of veterans that are making millions of dollars and not be great. It’s too unpredictable.”
Anthopoulos, it goes without saying, especially needs to make the right calls in the bullpen, lest some struggles there undermine the team’s performance.
Barring an addition or two that provides clarity, they’ll have training camp to try and sort it out, a spring now made busier with arbitration for Donaldson and Valencia looming, too.