Slow pace of Blue Jays off-season fuels continued Donaldson speculation

Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Joey Vendetta on the Jeff Blair Show to lay out the issues surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays, pointing out that a series of things need to go perfectly for this team to contend.

TORONTO – Uncertainty tends to thrive in a vacuum and the unusually deliberate pace of their off-season thus far is certainly breeding that around the Toronto Blue Jays.

To this point the club’s only major acquisition is infielder Aledmys Diaz, although you could also count the re-signing of Marco Estrada back in September as an add for 2018. Either way, the lack of action in bolstering the roster as winter hits has led to ongoing industry speculation about Josh Donaldson’s availability, which in turn has led to doubts about the Blue Jays’ direction for next year.

Those questions may very well persist until more pieces are put in place for another push with the current core, in spite of the clear and repeated statements by both president and CEO Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins about their intent to compete next season.

The longer it takes for transactions to go down – it’s logical to think something happens before Christmas but some moves may drag into January – the more it fuels the tear-it-down set. Front and centre is Donaldson’s future as he enters his walk-year, and the continuing chatter about the St. Louis Cardinals’ interest in the star slugger can be unnerving for fans unsure about where the Blue Jays are headed.

Muddying the waters are reports like that from respected St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Rick Hummell, who wrote Wednesday that “a Major League Baseball source familiar with the Jays said Toronto probably would want two major leaguers — such as a third baseman and a starting pitcher — and a prospect” for Donaldson. While Hummell proceeds to suggest such an ask is too rich for the Cardinals, the entire discussion is part of the clandestine nature of off-season gamesmanship, in which strategic leaks can be used to spur one party or another to action.

Short of the kind of absolute pronouncement executives rarely make to keep from tying their hands, the Blue Jays by now have done more than enough to try and shut down that noise. Just last week at the winter meetings, Atkins was as pointed as he could be when he said, “if we’re thinking about making this organization better every day, it’s really hard to imagine making it better without Josh. The team, as it stands, would be extremely difficult to make better – he’s one of the best players in the game.”

Such a statement is pretty much impossible for a general manager to walk back from, unless the return is so overwhelming that the majority of the fanbase immediately approves. Consider, too, that in November, Shapiro said in an interview the Blue Jays were intent on “playing out the team that was put in place in 2015, trying to give that team every chance to continue to win. A high cost was paid. Rightfully so. But now we have to do everything we humanly can to extend that window as long as possible.”

Again, those are pretty definitive words. But with the New York Yankees picking up Giancarlo Stanton, the Tampa Bay Rays dumping Evan Longoria, the Baltimore Orioles testing the waters on pending free agent Manny Machado, no major moves for the Blue Jays and no extension imminent for Donaldson, you can understand why an interested team like the Cardinals would keep pushing, just in case.

Remember, it was former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos’s continued badgering of Oakland Athletics counterpart Billy Beane that led to Donaldson’s acquisition in the first place.

The fact is the Blue Jays have good reason to keep pushing, especially given the seismic shifts within the American League East. Longoria’s trade to the San Francisco Giants marked the beginning of Tampa Bay’s reset while the Orioles’ limbo was exacerbated when closer Zach Britton suffered a freak Achilles injury that will cost him six months.

Yes, the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, who also still have most of their off-season business to do, are the obvious pace-setters. But with deft touches and a return to health, starting first and foremost with Aaron Sanchez, there’s no reason why the Blue Jays can’t catch the Minnesota Twins for the second wild card, if not do better.

There’s room for that to happen alongside lingering uncertainty about Donaldson’s longer-term future, too, just the way it did in 2016 when both Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista played out the season as pending free agents, the Blue Jays won a wild card and went to the ALCS.

Whether Donaldson stays or goes during or after 2018 is another matter, and the Blue Jays are sure to re-evaluate ahead of the next trade deadline.

If he finishes out the year in Toronto, one way the Blue Jays could work around their payroll constraints in 2019 – when they face $20 million hits on both Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki – is by backloading an extension, since they have minimal guarantees in 2020 and beyond. Indications are there’s been limited engagement on any sort of extension to this point.

That’s in the wider view.

For now, it’s hard to see the Blue Jays suddenly abandoning course and turning away from all their public statements about competing in 2018, although it’s probably going to take concrete moves for some rival executives and impatient fans to actually believe them.

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