For the first two months of this season, the future of the Blue Jays revolved around an all-world third baseman whose combination of uncanny hand-eye coordination and elite bat speed produced video-game numbers.
Then Vladimir Guerrero Jr. got hurt.
With Toronto’s imminent franchise player out at least a month, the focus now shifts to the current franchise player, another all-world third baseman with a track of video-game numbers, albeit not this season. Over the next month and a half, nothing will matter more to the Jays’ future than what happens to Josh Donaldson.
The former MVP and three-time All-Star has been out since May 29 with a calf injury, marking his second DL stint of the year. All told, he’s played in just 36 games so far in 2018. When you’re a player in your walk year before free agency, that’s a brutal break… for both Donaldson and his employer.
Still, if health were the only issue, both Donaldson and the Jays would have reason for optimism. The latest reports have him potentially starting a short rehab assignment on Friday, with an eye toward returning next week. Six weeks would normally offer plenty of time for a top player to showcase his talents before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, allowing potential suitors to line up, and start a bidding war.
Unfortunately, Donaldson’s in the midst of his worst campaign (by far) since his first full season back in 2013. In 36 games, he’s batting a modest .234/.333/.423.
Troubling indicators abound.
He’s struck out in 27.7 per cent of his plate appearances, the highest mark since Donaldson became an everyday player in the big leagues. He’s swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than at any point since that 2013 season, with more frequent swings and misses than ever before. Among the 127 American League players with 150 or more plate appearances this year, only seven have made contact less frequently than Donaldson has.
If you’re hoping Donaldson can at least hit a ton of homers while whiffing a lot, watching him post the highest groundball rate of his career is yet another discouraging sign.
For the Jays to get maximum trade value in return, Donaldson will need to shake off both injuries and all those early-season struggles. The good news is that we’re talking about a player who hit at peak levels last year, batting a huge .270/.385/.559, with 33 homers in just 119 games. At age 32, it’s unlikely that Donaldson has suddenly aged out of his talent. More likely, his 2018 woes stem from a combination of iffy health and a small sample size of at-bats.
So let’s take the optimistic view and assume that Donaldson makes it back healthy next week, immediately rediscovers his best swing, and starts raking to the best of his abilities. In that scenario, what could the Jays get for him between now and July 31?
The answer might largely depend on factors beyond the Blue Jays’ control.
With Donaldson slated to hit the open market at season’s end, we have to start by eliminating all non-contenders from our discussion, as they’d have little use for two-plus months of Donaldson’s services.
Next, we should eliminate teams that already have mainstay players at third base, either due to their skill, salary, potential, or all of the above. That likely knocks the Cubs (Kris Bryant), Nationals (Anthony Rendon), Brewers (Travis Shaw), Rockies (Nolan Arenado), Mariners (Kyle Seager), Astros (Alex Bregman), Yankees (Miguel Andujar), and Cleveland (Jose Ramirez) out of the running. It probably also knocks the Red Sox out of the race, though there’s a world in which the Sox grow fed up with talented young third baseman Rafael Devers’ growing pains and shoot for the moon too.
So let’s run through the rest of the pack. Here are the teams that could make the most sense for a Donaldson deadline deal, assuming he regains his MVP form in the near future.
The 2018 Braves look a lot like the 1991 Braves: a team built on young, homegrown talent that got really good faster than anyone expected. The emergence of Baby Braves Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, combined with superstar-in-residence Freddie Freeman, gives Atlanta three-quarters of a killer infield. A bold trade for Donaldson could give the Braves the final piece they need to complete an improbable one-year flip from also-rans to NL East winners.
The question is: should the Braves speed up their building process for an immediate shot at the brass ring? If Donaldson’s mashing at a 40-home run pace, would the Braves consider giving up right-hander Mike Soroka for him? As in, Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in the majors, owner of knockout stuff and a strong minor league track record, who also happens to be Canadian? At first glance, Soroka might seem untouchable, but remember what the Yankees got back from the Cubs for two months of Aroldis Chapman in 2016.
Atlanta may not be keen on short-circuiting its steady building process for a rental player, plus the market for Baltimore Orioles superstar Manny Machado could impact Donaldson’s value, but Soroka could be a piece in a potential deal.
One of the most underratedly sad tales in the sports world day is the Angels’ inability to surround the best player on the planet with the kind of talent that would allow all of us to watch Mike Trout pulverize his way deep into October.
With Trout sporting just one playoff berth in his career and just two-plus years from the end of his multi-year megacontract, there’s a sense of urgency growing in Orange County. It was that sense of urgency that led the Angels to transform their infield with the off-season acquisitions of Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart, to re-sign Justin Upton on a nine-figure deal, and to win the bidding war for sublime two-way star Shohei Ohtani.
Now the Angels find themselves at a crossroads. A hot start has faded into the rearview mirror; breakout shortstop Andrelton Simmons is on the DL; Cozart might soon join him if the shoulder injury he sustained on Wednesday warrants the rest, and worst of all, we might not see Ohtani until next summer if his UCL injury ends up requiring Tommy John surgery.
Given all that adversity, plus the Angels looking up at not one, but two teams in the AL West standings, should they save their best trade ammunition for another day? Or could ultra-aggressive owner Arte Moreno double down and seek even more star power at the Big A?
Justin Turner cracked his second long ball of the season Wednesday night, a positive sign as he tries to make his way back from a wrist injury that knocked him out for the first month and a half of the season. The problem is wrist injuries tend to linger, and Turner through his first 22 games this year looks nothing like the offensive dynamo we’ve seen in the past three seasons.
If L.A.’s big, bad ginger can’t answer the bell, Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, and company could be sorely tempted to make a run at a thumper like Donaldson. The Dodgers came within an eyelash of winning it all last season. With Corey Seager out for the year, they’re down a big bat already. But while they’re hewing around .500 instead of making another run at 100 wins, the Dodgers benefit from middling NL West competition this year.
The Jays could sorely use a young outfield anchor to complement potential infield stars Guerrero and Bo Bichette, and a 22-year-old with an elite hit tool like Alex Verdugo could fit the bill nicely.
The darkhorse of darkhorses, simply because they lost 96 games just a year ago. Still, imagine Donaldson in the middle of this young lineup, complementing a vastly improved pitching staff that might have the horses for a fun playoff run?
The dilemma here is similar to the one faced by the Braves. Do you make exciting young players like Scott Kingery, J.P. Crawford, and others available just to net a rental player, and run the risk of a poor second half resulting in Donaldson not even being able to return to the playoffs?
If you’re a Jays fan, you should be rooting hard for the Braves and Phils to continue their Cinderella stories, so that the potential field of Donaldson suitors could realistically expand.
Then again, with a deep stable of likely available third basemen including all-stars Machado, Mike Moustakas, and others, and many contenders trotting out viable third basemen already, and Donaldson needing both health and a skills rebound to recharge his trade value, Jays fans will need to root for a lot of things to go right in these next six weeks.