MIAMI – Optically, trading Josh Donaldson was never going to be easy for the Toronto Blue Jays, even though the amount of distrust that had developed between them meant their relationship was coming to an end, if not Friday than at season’s end.
Really, for both sides, this needed to happen, as difficult as it is to imagine saying that given where things stood even in the spring, when the sides earnestly discussed a contract extension.
But trading the star third baseman and cash – $2.7 million according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, to cover most of the remaining $3.7 million he’s still owed this year – to the Cleveland Indians, who visit Toronto next week, of all places?
Even the New York Yankees would have been a more palatable destination to send a player who earned a spot in franchise lore with an MVP season in 2015 and a return to the playoffs. In a short burst, he performed at as high a level as any player the Blue Jays have ever had.
So, yeah, this isn’t going to sit well with disgruntled and disappointed fans, even if the player to be named later was described by an industry source as someone Cleveland valued. Reports suggested the player will be right-hander Julian Merryweather, a 26-year-old who had Tommy John surgery in the spring but has arm strength and reached triple-A last year.
It’s something, and it almost was nothing.
But is it better than the compensatory draft pick in the 75-80 range the Blue Jays would have received had they extended Donaldson a qualifying offer as he enters a free agency? And is it better than the possibility Donaldson accepted a qualifying offer (something he’s no longer eligible for, allowing him to enter the market untethered) of roughly around $18 million and returned for another season?
That the last possibility was considered a risk, rather than a happy outcome, speaks to the deterioration of a relationship that started with so much promise but devolved due to disappointments and frustrations, on both sides.
The Blue Jays, clearly, were unwilling to end up forced into a bet on a Donaldson bounce back in 2019, even though he projects to remain a productive player for years to come. Top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is on his way, likely once his service time is manipulated to push back his free agency for a season, and happens to play third base.
And with their core in transition and reps needed for young players, even re-integrating Donaldson onto the roster for September would have been difficult for logistical reasons alone, although there are plenty more layers there.
Consider on its own how the past few days leading up to the trade played out.
Donaldson started a rehab assignment at single-A Dunedin on Tuesday, removed himself from the lineup Wednesday due to soreness and tightness in his legs and calves putting the Blue Jays’ chances of getting him through revocable waivers in jeopardy, and then took the field again Thursday to set in motion the process.
Some of the frustration on Donaldson’s end started becoming public Thursday when Donaldson told Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun of a perceived rift with management that, "There’s a lot I can say about that, but I choose not to say anything about it right now."
He also added that the troublesome left calf that has kept off a big-league field since May 28 had been "completely ruptured" and the "area outside the calf" was also injured, leading to an absence that was far longer than originally anticipated.
Donaldson was in charge of his own rehab, a by-product of previous friction from the spring of 2017, when he suffered an injury to his right calf. On the final day of the season, he told Sportsnet in an interview that, "I’ve never torn a muscle in my body before and to have a tear in my calf from doing an exercise that I probably shouldn’t have been doing at the time, that’s part of the learning process. … It just wasn’t the smartest of things."
The failed extension negotiations before spring training extended the divide and left the sides in a tenuous partnership, together as long as the Blue Jays were winning but destined to split if things went sideways.
Once things went sideways, Donaldson emerging from spring training with a shoulder issue before the calf flared up, injuries that helped submarine the club’s hopes of contending this season, the Blue Jays were in position to trade him once he was healthy.
It didn’t happen before the July 31 non-waiver deadline and Friday was the last chance to make it happen, ahead of the Sept. 1 cutoff for playoff eligibility.
An ugly end to a beautiful start.
"I love the guy," said manager John Gibbons. "We had our battles, but you know, he has a big heart and he’s a special baseball player. That’s a good spot for him. He’s like a stallion. He’s a racehorse. He’s high strung. That’s the way he approached the game. But he did a lot for us here, and I wish him the best."
Said Aaron Sanchez: "He put us on his back in 2015 and took us to the promised land. We understood what it took to win ballgames and what it took to get to that next level in terms of playing for a real season in October. I know everyone here wishes him well. Obviously we want to beat Cleveland when he comes to town. Hats off to them, they got a great player. He loves to shine in the big moments so he’s right in his habitat."
Said Justin Smoak: "He meant a lot. The first two years he was here we went to the American League Championship Series, he was a great teammate, a great player. I wish him nothing but the best."
As will the fans who came to love him, those who witnessed a greatness few players ever achieve. The divorce was never going to be pretty, and with Donaldson now in Cleveland, it sure wasn’t.