Donaldson expects Blue Jays’ offence to drive 2016 success

Josh Donaldson is feeling a sense of comfort at spring training this year, fresh off a new contract and the reigning AL MVP.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Rhyming off the names in the Toronto Blue Jays batting order, Josh Donaldson paused for a moment after a belated mention of Troy Tulowitzki, and shook his head.

“I mean… Jesus, it just keeps going. You know what I mean?” he said Thursday, shortly after reporting for physicals ahead of Friday’s first full-squad workout. “I wouldn’t want to pitch against us. And there were a lot of guys last year that we faced who were defeated before they even threw the first pitch. And those guys made their exit pretty quick.”

Somewhat forgotten amid the cavalcade of conjecture about Jose Bautista and what the Blue Jays will look like in 2017 and beyond that has marked the opening of this camp, is that baseball’s most productive offence returns essentially intact for 2016.

While Tulowitzki will be around for a full season and Michael Saunders is slated to step in for departed leadoff man Ben Revere, everyone else is back, including the fearsome 2-3-4 of Donaldson, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion that combined for 120 home runs.

As a whole the Blue Jays scored 891 runs – 127 more than the New York Yankees, who finished second – and if they are to defend their American League East crown, it will be the offence that drives them there.

Donaldson firmly believes they will only be helped by their run to the American League Championship Series.

“Last year, I don’t think the expectations were there for everybody coming into camp,” he said. “You had some guys who were just trying to not be sent down; you had some guys who were just hoping to have a little success. Now you have guys who’ve been in the playoffs, they have a full season under their belt, and they’re coming in with higher expectations of themselves. It’s an individual sport played as a team game, so the higher a level your individuals play at, the better your team is going to play.”

Donaldson, of course, will be hard-pressed to match his 2015 output, when he slashed .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers and 123 RBIs en route to American League MVP honours. In many ways, his searing intensity and tireless tenacity spiked the club’s pulse, setting the standard for others to match.

Even from the other side of the field, new president and CEO Mark Shapiro noticed “a guy that has not just the talent, but the drive, the intensity, the fuel to win, a guy that makes other players better by the way he brings that level of competitiveness every single day.”

That’s what made the Blue Jays’ inability to settle on a contract with Donaldson ahead of the arbitration deadline so surprising.

Forget for a moment that he was the reigning MVP and that the Blue Jays would have been taking the all-star third baseman to a hearing for a second year in a row. Even though the arbitration process isn’t necessarily as acrimonious as it once was, arguing a case against a player as invested as him benefits no one.

For those reasons, the $28.65-million, two-year deal the sides struck with a hearing looming made so much sense.

“Neither side, I felt like, wanted to go to arbitration, I think we were both willing to if it had to go that route,” said Donaldson. “It’s a business and at the end of the day, as a player, especially as a player with my own beliefs, I feel like I go out there and lay it on the line for this organization, I lay it on the line for the fans, I lay it on the line for my teammates. To have the season that I had last year, I wanted to feel like at the end of the day that they wanted to take care of me, that they wanted to invest in me because I felt like I invested in this organization, and did a lot for this organization in a short amount of time. I wanted to feel like what I had done in the previous season, that I was going to be taken care of for it and I felt like they did that.”

Shapiro acknowledged avoiding arbitration was important, pointing out that contract negotiations are one of the “small junctures” in the game where the interests between player and team can diverge.

Pivotal, he believes, is finding ways to keep the process from becoming “an uncomfortable situation.”

“I think the system rewards players pretty well when they do well,” said Shapiro. “Over time, not having a chance to build relationships yet, I hope all players here feel appreciated every single day both for what they do, and who they are as people.”

The two-year deal was a clever one for the Blue Jays in that it prevents any contract squabbles from resurfacing again next year, while also giving both sides time to work on a long-term agreement if desired. Donaldson is under club control through the 2018 season.

“I said earlier in the off-season that I would love to end my career as a Blue Jay, but we're not even talking about (a long-term deal) right now for the sheer fact that I feel like both sides are happy where we’re at,” he said. “I'm sure at some point we’ll have talks, but that’s not even a concern for me right now.”

The concern for him at the moment is preparing for the 2016 season, and maintaining all the positive traits the Blue Jays displayed last year.

Handshakes and hugs greeted him as he arrived in the clubhouse with his cap on backwards, and teammates immediately gravitated toward his locker the way they did in 2015. He greeted reporters by saying, “pretty excited to be back with the boys and cause a little trouble.”

Maintaining that vibe, one that generated productive exchanges of knowledge, and replicating the benefits from an unquantifiable element of camaraderie, is the goal.

“What was so special about our team last year is that you have some teams, they just kind of show up to the ballpark and go play, and you have some teams where guys are looking forward to showing up in the clubhouse and being around the guys in the clubhouse,” Donaldson said. “When you have that, when you have all 25 guys on the same page, now it becomes fun and you start having success with that. The calibre of guys in the clubhouse now, and the clubhouse we had last year, it’s a special group of guys.”

That group of guys certainly has questions that loom for the future. But worth remembering is that it’s also a group of guys with plenty of answers for the present.