TORONTO – Finding common ground on a record-setting, one-year deal to avoid arbitration was the easy part for Josh Donaldson and the Toronto Blue Jays, at least relative to the potential pursuit of a long-term agreement. Even still, there were points Friday when it looked like the third baseman might once again end up in a hearing room, this time in his final year prior to free agency, until the sides settled at $23 million for the 2018 season.
In doing so, they deferred the drama over Donaldson’s bigger-picture fate, buying themselves some time to assess where the market stands, where it might go, and whether they might get there together.
“Any great player is typically a complicated case because the elite players typically don’t have (comparables). There aren’t many players that are as talented as Josh,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said of how the sides agreed on a salary that surpassed Bryce Harper’s $21.625 million as the single-season payout record for arbitration-eligible players. “The discussions are in and around salary versus raise, similar types of performance and similar years … the platform-year performance. The bulk is career and ultimately the consistency in time that they’re active in doing it is what drives these outcomes.
“We didn’t, by any means, break the record. Josh did. Josh broke the record with his performance. … We knew that was going to happen, it was just a matter of how much and if we could align in value. Very pleased that we did.”
Less pleased, surely, is Marcus Stroman, who – barring a multi-year agreement – will have his salary decided in an arbitration hearing room for a second straight year after failing to reach a deal ahead of Friday’s deadline for teams and players to exchange arbitration figures.
Stroman asked for $6.9 million while the club countered at $6.5 million, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, making him one of the two players among the nine eligible Blue Jays not to settle. The other was closer Roberto Osuna, who filed at $5.8 million while the club countered at $5.3 million, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.
Since the Blue Jays operate under a file-and-trial policy, only a multi-year deal can keep them from a hearing room now, a fate Atkins described as “part of the process” while noting both Stroman and Osuna are represented by the same agency.
“The industry has seen that more and more teams are more willing to go (to arbitration) and agencies are more and more willing to go,” said Atkins. “I believe their firm (The Legacy Agency) has multiple players that have yet to reach an agreement, it seems to be somewhat potentially a strategy on their part.
“For whatever reason, three times in the last two years we haven’t lined up with that agency.”
Aside from Donaldson, the Blue Jays also avoided arbitration with Kevin Pillar ($3.25 million), Aaron Sanchez ($2.7 million), Ezequiel Carrera ($1.9 million), Aaron Loup ($1,812,500), Devon Travis ($1.45 million) and Dominic Leone ($1.085 million).
The deals and filings give the Blue Jays guarantees to 19 players totalling either $141.5 million or $142.4 million, depending on which way the arbitrator rules. Factoring in some money for 0-3 service time players (who don’t qualify for arbitration), that leaves Atkins with an estimated $20 million to spend based on a payroll of $165 million.
He continues to be on the hunt for an outfielder and a starting pitcher, with interest in adding relievers (likely of the low-cost, value-play variety) and a backup catcher, budget permitting.
“We definitely still have room to make moves, whether that’s via free agency or trade, and feel like we’re in a good position to continue to make our team better,” Atkins said. “Where that ends, we’ll see.”
More immediately, the Blue Jays repaired some of the damage done to their relationship with Sanchez last spring by giving him a strong number his first time through arbitration, even though the right-hander missed most of 2017 with blister issues on his right middle finger. Despite leading the American League in ERA during 2016, Sanchez was renewed at the major-league minimum last year after turning down a small raise.
Avoiding a hearing room also ensures no damage to the Blue Jays’ relationship with Donaldson, especially with him eligible for free agency in the fall. He went to a hearing with the Blue Jays in 2015, when an arbitrator selected the club’s offer of $4.3 million rather than the player’s ask of $5.75 million.
Donaldson was on track for another hearing in 2016, after he won the AL MVP award, but the sides ultimately settled on a $28.65-million, two-year deal to keep them from an arbitrator.
Now with the pressure off, Donaldson’s $23-million salary could serve as a potential jumping off point for talks on a longer-term deal in the spring, or simply set him up to test the market in the fall if he isn’t dealt prior to the trade deadline, first.
“It can become very easy just to do the deal, just to get the deal done especially with players like Josh Donaldson,” Atkins said of Friday’s settlement while refusing to disclose if the sides discussed the possibility of a longer-term agreement. “What you have to balance is what’s best for the organization in 2018, what’s best for the organization from a precedent standpoint moving forward. In addition to that, we have an additional responsibility to the industry to be disciplined.
“There’s a fine balance there. What we’re striving for from a credibility standpoint is being fair and reasonable.”
They got there for 2018. Getting there for 2019 and beyond is going to be a whole lot tougher.