Donaldson deal gives Blue Jays payroll clarity going forward

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins joined Prime Time Sports to discuss the decision behind offering Josh Donaldson a two-year deal and why he feels the AL MVP is worth it for the Blue Jays.

TORONTO — If the Toronto Blue Jays hadn’t signed the defending American League MVP to a two-year, $28.65 million contract this week, they would have been staring at a very uncomfortable, potentially contentious arbitration hearing with Josh Donaldson on Feb. 15 over the relatively inconsequential amount of $450,000.

Toronto GM Ross Atkins admits he wouldn’t have been able to make much of an argument.

“You know what, we would’ve gone into that hearing talking about how good of a player Josh Donaldson is,” Atkins says. “That’s really the truth. We would not have had anything bad to say about him.”

Fortunately for all involved, the Blue Jays and Donaldson settled on that new deal, which the team officially announced on Wednesday after bringing Donaldson in from a busy week of golf at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am for a quick physical Tuesday night. Now, the team won’t have to go through arbitration with its all-star third baseman for at least the next two years, but could still go to a hearing in 2018, Donaldson’s final year of arbitration eligibility, if the two sides don’t extend his contract or sign a new one.

But what if the Blue Jays had gone to that hearing next week, with Atkins and Co. intending to assert how great Donaldson is as a player and teammate? What argument could they have made for keeping the $450,000 from him?

“We would’ve presented our case and it would have been more about comparables and how far above thresholds you can ultimately go,” Atkins says. “We were getting into record-setting territory. So, going above and beyond when you’re already into record-setting territory is where the challenge came.”

Essentially, the Blue Jays weren’t comfortable determining an arbitrary number by which they would break Chris Davis’ record $7.05-million raise, which he was awarded in 2014, his second year of arbitration eligibility. That explains why the Blue Jays filed at $11.35 million, exactly a $7.05 million raise over Donaldson’s 2015 salary of $4.3 million. Meanwhile, Donaldson’s representatives entered uncharted territory, filing at $11.8 million. Ultimately, both sides chose to avoid making history.

“Any time you’re signing a guy off an MVP season, you’re in a tough spot,” Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro told MLB Network Radio on Tuesday. “It’s not the best negotiating position to be in. You’re not arguing whether or not he deserves a lot of money—it’s just how much.”

Interestingly, the small gulf between the filing numbers of the two sides may have pushed them towards arriving at the multi-year agreement that they did. Holding an arbitration hearing would have been a significant undertaking over such a relatively small amount of money.

“Did that smaller gap motivate both parties more? Maybe; possibly,” Atkins says. “But I think if anything that gap actually just made the negotiations more open and candid.”

From the sounds of it, the Blue Jays and Donaldson’s representatives—headed by Dan Lozano of MVP Sports—discussed a number of frameworks for a new contract, including some scenarios that could have bought out one or more of the 30-year-old’s free agent years which are slated to begin in 2019.

“We looked at everything,” Shapiro told MLB Network Radio Tuesday night. “Free agent years; two, three, four year deals; we looked at a one-year deal.”

Ultimately, both sides decided that a two-year pact was best and moved on to negotiating the money, which will see Donaldson earn $11.65 million in 2016 and $17 million in 2017. If Donaldson were to have another MVP-type season this year, the Blue Jays will undoubtedly be saving millions on what the third baseman could have earned through arbitration next winter. Of course, the team is also absorbing the risk of Donaldson suffering a major injury or decline in performance, which would have significantly hindered his arbitration earnings.

The Blue Jays also benefit from receiving clarity on their payroll situation over the next two seasons, which could help the team shape negotiations with walk-year sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Shapiro and Atkins have both spoken publicly about a desire to re-sign both players and will begin to explore the possibility of that during spring training.

“It only improves our ability to continue those [discussions],” Atkins says. “The more we get to know our players, the more time we spend with them individually and the more time we spend with their agents, the closer we can get to hopefully agreeing on terms. We’d love to have those guys here in the future. And we’re going to work as hard as we can to do what’s best for the organization and those players.”

And if you’re a young Blue Jays player who may be facing arbitration some day soon, the Donaldson deal sends a clear message that the team will look to reward you with guaranteed money if you perform well on and off the field. Take care of your business and the team will take care of you.

“If we have multiple MVP-type years and guys that are winning MVPs, that will be a great problem to have,” Atkins says. “We’re always open to the interests of the player, the interests of the organization, and trying to have win-win negotiations. In this case we were able to do that. And really, we’re striving to have those challenges where we have those types of performances. We want that for every single player.”