CLEVELAND – The conflict in Josh Donaldson is evident. Bring traded from the Toronto Blue Jays was gutting for him, leaving a city he quickly grew to love, parting with a club he helped restore to glory. He wanted to stay for years to come and made that clear in the off-season before he embarked in a season of disappointment for both self and team, the outcome sending each on divergent paths and a polarizing split.
“I’ve told you where I was at from the beginning, I felt like being a cornerstone part of that organization for the last four years, that’s where I called home and I wanted to be there,” Donaldson said Sunday in an emotional interview with Sportsnet and The Athletic. “The fact of the matter is as a player, we can only control what we can control. I’m not authorizing decisions. What I can control is after a decision is made, turning it into a positive and trying to do the best that I can to turn the situation into a positive one.”
Donaldson is determined to do just that with the Cleveland Indians, even as he continues to work back into game shape from the left calf injury that’s sidelined him since May 28, even as the events of recent days and weeks haunt him.
The split was acrimonious.
On Saturday, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins referenced “frustrations” Donaldson had with the club’s high-performance department and how the trade process played out. On Sunday, Donaldson said in a TV interview with Sportsnet that he’s not “ready to get into certain issues.”
Atkins said, “it was very public that we talked about extensions at length over the course of last off-season.” Donaldson said, “There weren’t really contract negotiations being had.”
Told of Atkins’ comments, Donaldson asked: “What’s your definition of a contract negotiation?”
An exchange of numbers, an interviewer replies.
“There was a never a talk of an exchange of numbers – not to me,” said Donaldson. “I don’t know if him and my agent discussed something. That’s between them. I have no information of that. But at the same time, like look, (Atkins) doesn’t have to (make an offer).”
Once he entered the season without a contract extension, did he believe a split was imminent, either via trade or as a free agent at season’s end or did he see a path back to Toronto?
“Did I see a way out of it?” he asked rhetorically. “I felt like if I went on the field and performed and we won some ball games, then that’s how ultimately you’d be graded. I was not successful in that this year. I was not successful in staying healthy and helping my team and contributing to my team. Now we’re in this situation. It’s now for me to look at this as a positive and come in here with a new opportunity and fresh start, to come in here and try to help this organization win, and not just win now but in the post-season as well.”
The left calf that cramped back in spring training, was injured running the bases May 27 at Boston, and reinjured in late June while fielding groundballs as part of his rehab program, is the sole impediment to that.
Donaldson was on the field early Sunday after an evaluation by Cleveland’s medical staff, went through some agility and running drills, did some fielding work and then took batting practice. Afterwards he met with Chris Antonetti, the club’s president of baseball operations, and manager Terry Francona to begin mapping out his return.
“The good news is I’m not really in a position where I need help anymore as far as getting my body back to perform at a high level,” said Donaldson. “Now it’s just managing the load process and managing the schedule of how many games I’m going to play in a row. It’s not a matter of getting me back out on the field. I feel I can already do that.”
Donaldson largely did that on his own with the Blue Jays. Atkins said Saturday that the star third baseman largely drove his own process, something the club 100 per cent supported.
But there had been friction between the Blue Jays’ high-performance staff and Donaldson dating back to the beginning of last spring, when he tore his right calf doing what he described to Sportsnet last October as “an exercise that I probably shouldn’t have been doing at the time.”
Asked Sunday about the challenge of playing for a team with a high-performance department he may have lost trust in, he paused for 10 seconds before replying: “I’m not going to sit here and try to blame any one person. Ultimately, it’s my body. Ultimately, I’m the one that’s in charge of it. I had a coach one time when I was with the Oakland A’s, he would always tell me: ‘It’s your career.’ What he meant by that is for you to be in charge of what’s going on.”
“I tried to look for people for information,” Donaldson continued. “I tried to look for better ways of doing things. Obviously, when things have transpired the way they have, it’s been difficult. I’ve been extremely frustrated in my ability to get on the field and help that organization win over the past year. At the same time, in life you have a choice. You can look at things in a positive way or you can continue to stay in the negative. For me, I want to try to stay as positive as possible.”
The opportunity before him is clearly helping Donaldson in that regard. Cleveland is headed to another American League Central title and eying a second trip to the World Series in three years. As much as he’s pained by the departure from Toronto, he’s excited about joining MVP candidate Jose Ramirez, who’ll be moving from third to second to accommodate him, Francisco Lindor and former Blue Jays teammate Edwin Encarnacion, who called Donaldson immediately after hearing of the trade, among others.
“I told him he’s going to be welcomed here,” said Encarnacion. “It’s all about winning and I told him, ‘You’re going to have fun here.’”
Antonetti is betting on it.
Cleveland is expected to send right-handed pitching prospect Julian Merryweather to the Blue Jays as the player to be named later in the deal once the season ends, with Antonetti saying only that “we’re going to end up giving up a good player.”
Once ready, Donaldson will not only push Ramirez over to second but also force Jason Kipnis to the outfield, an unusual late-season disruption with an eye on the potential impact the 2015 American League MVP can deliver.
He could do for Cleveland what Justin Verlander, another late Aug. 31 add, did for Houston last year.
“We went into the trade knowing there’s a lot of risk in the fact that he hadn’t played in a while and exactly when he’d be healthy and ready to go and play regularly is still a little bit uncertain,” said Antonetti. “And the level of performance when he returns after missing so much time is hard to predict. The one thing we’re confident in is when Josh is healthy and in a good spot he’s a really productive player on both sides of the ball, so we were willing to take the risk.”
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, preferred six years of control on Merryweather than the opportunity to extend Donaldson a qualifying offer of roughly $18 million once he becomes a free agent, concerned by the possibility he’d accept.
A return engagement in Toronto comes Thursday, when Cleveland arrives for the start of a four-game series. Emotions will run high all around.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Donaldson. “The fans really meant a lot to me, and I appreciate them very much. They’ve had an impact on me, for sure.”
The inverse is true as well, a sad ending for a player who helped carry the Blue Jays to the post-season in 2015 and ’16, and shined as brightly as any player has, over a short burst, in franchise history.
As it turned out, his last Blue Jays home game came May 24 against the Los Angeles Angels, an 8-1 loss in which he went 1-for-4. Four days later he was hurt, and that was it for him in Toronto.
Kicked out the door when he was down?
“I think you can say that, but that’s not what I’m going to say,” replied Donaldson. “I don’t know. I don’t know what their thoughts are. … It doesn’t really matter how I feel at the end of the day. It matters that this is my job, that this is what I love to do and if a team wants to bring me in to allow me to do what I love, which is play the game, then I’m for it.”