Tao of Stieb: Donaldson trade rumours create no-win narrative for Jays

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joins Hazel Mae to talk about being linked to players out in the MLB to improve the team, the potential of players in the farm system and more from the MLB Winter Meetings.

As the free agent market has remained slow and the trade market has just begun to open up, the one thing that has moved with haste and frequency in recent weeks is trade chatter around all-star third basemen Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado.

The narrative around both is remarkably similar: Pending free agent third basemen at the top of the class following the 2018 season, playing for teams who were on the outskirts of contention even before the New York Yankees re-escalated the arms race in the AL East. However, both the Orioles and Blue Jays are publicly adopting a posture of wanting to keep these two players for the coming season.

There are nuances between the two, of course. The Blue Jays, by their public statements and actions, seem more intent on competing in 2018 than conceding and looking beyond the coming season. Machado is also younger, and would likely be happy to move to shortstop for any interested team, either this winter or beyond.

But what both situations have in common to a profound degree is that both teams are in no-win situations when it comes to winning the narrative on moving these players.

To some extent, the Orioles are already further along in losing the narrative on Machado, with some of the chattering class having questioned for a couple of years why the Orioles didn’t move him when they could have maximized his value.

For the Jays and Donaldson, there was still every sense that his present value to a team with designs on competing outstripped any perceived advantage in trading him the proverbial “year too early” rather than the “year too late.”

With the disappointment of the 2017 season and the rapid changes in the competitive landscape, these perceptions are evolving quickly. Where early-off-season rumblings around a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals were met with dread from Blue Jays fans, the unexpected beginning of the Giancarlo Stanton as a Yankee Era has flipped the script to some extent.

Moreover, it has set up the perfect conditions for a tidal wave of hindsighters to launch a campaign of self-satisfied assertions that the Blue Jays should have traded Donaldson when they had the chance.

Such a narrative is almost unavoidable at this point. The opinion that sport is now a binary system of either winning or tanking helps to feed this, and second-guessing the front office has taken the place of second-guessing the manager as the favoured pastime of many fans and commentators.

The Blue Jays would almost certainly have to make a deep playoff run for the armchair executives to accept that keeping Donaldson was the right call. Even in the best of years, such an outcome is unlikely. If they get off to a poor start and the case for trading Donaldson becomes more relevant, there will still be those who suggest that whatever return they receive mid-season would likely have been outstripped in the previous off-seasons.

Still, despite the chatter that you are almost certain to hear eventually, there is a compelling rationale for keeping Josh Donaldson, regardless of what happens in the coming season.

In an era of 30 front offices that are deliberate and well-stocked with tall foreheads and clever minds, no team is going to be hoodwinked into sending the Blue Jays a ransom for one year of Donaldson’s services.

Weighing the six-to-eight wins above replacement that a full, prosperous and healthy season from Donaldson could provide, it’s hard to imagine any return that could reliably equal that output over the long term. Moreover, the premium value of those added wins above three or four in a single season are unlikely to be truly replaced by cobbling together one- or two-win seasons over the coming years from the players who return in a trade.

The Blue Jays may have already lost their opportunity to avoid hearing ‘I told you so’ in the coming years, but the present opportunity to have one more season with a player like Donaldson is one that should not be overlooked or diminished.