Blue Jays, Donaldson could both win with multi-year contract

Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson celebrates with teammate Jose Bautista after hitting a two-run home run. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – The impression left from last week’s Leadoff event is that the Toronto Blue Jays are working hard to avoid taking American League MVP Josh Donaldson to arbitration for a second straight year.

As well they should be.

Clearly, settling on a contract before the Feb. 15 hearing is the most desired outcome, especially since there’s only a $450,000 gap between the club offer of $11.35 million and the player ask of $11.8 million.

Arbitration may not be as nasty as it used to be, but regardless of the outcome, no one wins if the sides argue this case when the difference is so relatively small.

Given the Blue Jays’ file-and-trial policy, the only way to avoid a hearing at this point is some type of multi-year deal (they can’t go back on their word and do a one-year deal without negatively impacting future negotiations). And since a long-term contract is probably too complicated to figure out in a truncated time-frame, the most logical approach is to buy out Donaldson’s three remaining arbitration seasons.

The sides could also settle on a two-year deal, but locking up the all-star third baseman for the 2016, ’17 and ’18 seasons makes far more sense as a way of ensuring this entire regrettable situation can’t repeat itself. The Blue Jays would gain some cost certainty on Donaldson over the next three seasons, probably gain a discount on the total sum versus going year-to-year, and gain the flexibility to allocate the total cost as they see fit.

Perhaps more importantly, the commitment of a three-year deal might also make Donaldson feel at home after a couple of harder-line arbitration negotiations, and perhaps set the stage for a longer-term contract down the road, before he becomes eligible for free agency following the 2018 season.

There is precedent on all fronts.

For a recent example, last month the Kansas City Royals agreed to a $17.5-million, two-year deal with outfielder Lorenzo Cain to buy out his remaining arbitration seasons after the sides exchanged filing numbers.
In 2011, Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers agreed on $24-million, two-year deal to avoid arbitration after the outfielder won the American League MVP in 2010.

Also in 2011, Canadian superstar Joey Votto signed a $38-million, three-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds after winning the National League MVP in 2010, locking up his three arbitration years. A year later, the sides worked out a massive extension that added $225 million over 10 years, a step-by-step process that could be drawn upon here.

The Blue Jays and Donaldson don’t need to make a decision on the long-term at this point. But taking any potential friction out of the mix from the three years to come can only help if the sides do decide to pursue an extension later.

There is a business element to this as well, as having Donaldson’s salaries figured out can help the Blue Jays as they look to re-sign pending free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said last week that talks with both sluggers would pick up during spring training.

During the Leadoff event for season-ticket holders last week, general manager Ross Atkins responded to a fan question about a long-term deal for Donaldson to avoid arbitration by saying: “We want him here as long as humanly possible.”

“There are obviously challenges to that, we have to agree on what that means financially, but we’re going to do everything we can,” Atkins continued. “He is a remarkable player and I can say from watching him, there aren’t many guys like that. It is a whole other level of talent, competitiveness, drive, and it’s not just on offence. A lot of guys talk about (Mike) Trout, and a lot of guys talk about best players in the game, you can build an organization around Trout, I’ll take Donaldson.”

The Blue Jays have a week left to negotiate with their MVP before a hearing.