Donaldson’s final days with Blue Jays are difficult to reconcile

Shi Davidi and Arash Madani look at the Blue Jays’ decision to move Josh Donaldson to the Indians, and why they took the deal that they did.

MIAMI – In stark terms, cold, objective, the Toronto Blue Jays believe a player to be named later yet to touch the big-leagues is worth more to them right now than a chance to retain pending free agent Josh Donaldson for 2019 through the extension of a qualifying offer.

That’s the math. That’s why the 2015 American League MVP was dispatched to the Cleveland Indians on Friday night for a player to be named later, making for a polarizing end to a brilliant and uneven run with the club.

The player coming back is believed to be Julian Merryweather, a 26-year-old, low-walk, high-strikeout righty who touched triple-A last year but has missed all this season following Tommy John surgery. He likely can’t be named because he didn’t clear revocable waivers this month.

The Blue Jays want Mr. PTBNL, described only by general manager Ross Atkins as an already identified "near-term prospect that will impact our major-league team in a significant way," more than Donaldson.

Reconcile that.

“There’s more to it than the fact that the player hasn’t touched the big-leagues – it’s the years of control, the cost of that player and what that means for potential contributions and efficiency within your roster,” Atkins said on a conference call Saturday afternoon. “I suppose if you want to talk about in that way, is just one year, at whatever value that might be for Josh Donaldson, more valuable than six years of Player X at Cost Y? That’s an equation that anyone could do and figure out and determine which one they’d rather have.

“What lines up for us now, very well, is how well the acquired talent matches with a lot of the upper-level talent in our system.”

Now, obviously, there’s more to it than that. A healthy and productive Donaldson could certainly match well with the upper level talent in the Blue Jays system, too, and a divorce of this magnitude doesn’t take place in spreadsheet cells alone.

There are many layers to this onion.

But at the moment of truth, when the Blue Jays weighed their vision for a future with or without Donaldson, that’s how the math went down.

“Well, it was very public that we talked about extensions at length over the course of last off-season,” Atkins said. “Josh is an incredible player and will continue to be an incredible player. As we weighed our alternatives, it just came down to us feeling this was the best alternative for us in the moment.”

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Atkins said four teams with “solid interest” were engaged on Donaldson during the trade talks Friday, and that the deal with Cleveland, which included $2.7 million to help defray the remaining $3.7 million the star slugger is still owed, “was the best return.”

“It was very close,” he said of the other offers.

That’s a subjective call the Blue Jays will have to answer for, and one way or another, this was pennies on the dollar. A reality resulting from consecutive injury-marred seasons for Donaldson, and underlined by the fact that no one was willing to make a waiver claim and risk paying the full freight for a month of him plus playoffs.

Put another way, the Blue Jays had to buy a prospect for Donaldson, the way they also bought prospects for Steve Pearce and Curtis Granderson. To varying degrees, that’s how the industry saw his value over the next month.

How Donaldson’s tenure with the Blue Jays, so brilliant at the beginning, so tumultuous at the end, got to this point is similarly difficult to reconcile.

The third baseman’s comments to Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun this week brought to public some of the challenges between the sides that have percolated beneath the surface dating back to the spring of 2017, when Donaldson tore his right calf during a sprinting exercise.

By the end of last year, he had vowed to follow his own program, something Atkins said the Blue Jays fully supported, but more injury troubles this spring, this time to his right shoulder before his left calf troubles began, once again left him chasing the stability beneath him.

A lengthy rehab led to questions about what was taking Donaldson so long to recover, especially as he remained sidelined while the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline came and went. And there was turbulence this past week as he started a rehab assignment just in time for the Blue Jays to place him on revocable waivers in time to open a window for the Sept. 1 deadline for playoff eligibility.

All of that left Atkins on the defensive, insisting there was “not any pressure from me or from our medical staff for him to play,” in the rehab games this week, while pointing out that, “Josh was driving his timeline entirely, was leading us through when he wanted to play, so we were following his lead on that.”

He conceded to “frustrations” Donaldson had with the club’s high-performance staff last year and insisted those had been cleared up, and that the team had “100 per cent supported” his visit to an external specialist for his calf.

They spoke three times Friday as the trade was going down, insisting the interactions were positive.

“When players are being traded, there’s a level of emotion, they’re put on trade waivers, there’s a heightened level of emotion, and then when it becomes public, there’s another level of complexity that contributes to that frustration,” said Atkins. “And any time a player gets traded, that’s always difficult.”

Difficult, indeed, especially when there’s so much that’s so difficult to come to terms with.

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