Jonah Keri: The case against trading Josh Donaldson this season

Ross Atkins joined Prime Time Sports for an extended conversation on the Blue Jays.

They own the second worst record in the American League. Their former MVP third baseman, all-star catcher, all-star shortstop, and two starting pitchers who finished in the top-seven of Cy Young voting last year are all on the disabled list. Their position players are the oldest in all of baseball and this era has been particularly cruel toward older players.

If any team would seem a prime candidate to blow it all up and rebuild, the Blue Jays would be it.

There’d be no shortage of viable trade candidates if the Jays went in that direction. Right-hander Marco Estrada has quietly become one of the best and most underrated starters in the game, and he’s a free agent at season’s end, making him an ideal choice for a July trade.

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Jose Bautista and Francisco Liriano, as well as relievers J.P. Howell, Joe Smith, and Jason Grilli, can also test the open market at season’s end. A healthy J.A. Happ could be intriguing for buyers, especially with one year left on his deal after this one. And if Toronto would be willing to absorb some of the cost, the long-term contracts of Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin become more palatable.

The biggest prize of all, though, would be Josh Donaldson. The 2015 MVP is 31 years old, and he’s lost half a step, going from the best third baseman in the league three years ago to a middle-of-the-road defender now (per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved). He’s under team control through the 2018 season. Trading him to a contender would be the biggest of the moves the Jays could make if they want to rebuild (beyond trade much younger top-tier players with multiple years of team control left, like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman).

And there’s no way the Jays should do it. At least not now.

First, the Jays are a better team than their 13-21 record would suggest. After two straight trips to the ALCS, advanced projection systems remained relatively bullish on Toronto. Though none of those forecasts had the Jays matching last season’s 89 wins, the ZiPS system projected them for 87, and even the least bullish system (Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA) pegged them at 81. They’re playing much closer to that more bullish pace lately: After starting the season at 6-17, the Jays have gone 7-4 since.

Things could get significantly better from there, as the Jays enter the easiest schedule stretch of their season. Starting Thursday, they play eight straight games against sub-.500 opponents, with four each against the Mariners and Braves. After a more mixed end of May and beginning of June, Toronto then gets 18 straight games against sub-.500 clubs, with series against the A’s, Mariners, Rays, White Sox, Rangers, and Royals June 5-25. Sanchez and Tulo are both due back in the next week, and Martin, Happ, and Donaldson (on the DL since mid-April with a calf injury) might not be far behind.

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A confluence of pushover opponents, improved team health, and a return to expected levels of play could get the Jays back to .500 before too long.

Those are all short-term considerations, though. The Jays have larger factors to consider.

For one thing, they draw more fans than any other team, nearly 38,000 per game so far this season. Those huge crowds continue a rush started in 2015, when blockbuster deadline deals for Tulowitzki and David Price combined with a euphoric stretch of second-half winning, brought packed houses to Rogers Centre every night, the first time the Jays had seen since their back-to-back title years in the early ’90s.

The year-after effect of that magical 2015 season combined with another playoff run to net nearly 42,000 per game in 2016, a staggering figure that led the American League.

Losing games would be one thing. Losing games and trading Donaldson could signal to fans that a full teardown is underway, and that the next several years of Blue Jays baseball might be tough to watch. Rabid, savvy fans might understand the importance of acquiring younger talent for the long haul. But more casual fans might struggle with the team’s losing ways, and feel even worse if the Jays’ franchise player becomes a Cardinal, or a Red Sock, or a (gasp) Yankee. Keeping Donaldson around for as long as possible could help prolong the franchise’s off-field momentum, the kind that’s supercharged attendance and TV ratings, and more intangibly made the Jays a hot topic of conversation on those glorious Toronto summer patio nights — like they were 25 years ago.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Blue Jays will, or even should sign Donaldson to a huge contract extension. He’ll turn 33 the same off-season he’s slated to become a free agent. From Ryan Howard to Albert Pujols to many others, Major League Baseball’s history is littered with examples of big deals for over-30 players that failed spectacularly.

But waiting until this winter to consider a trade could offer multiple advantages. It could help keep fan interest up through the rest of the season. It could give potential suitors the time and calmer landscape that some of them prefer to make a blockbuster deal. And it could give the Jays a chance to replicate what they did in 2015, when they started the season at 23-30, then went on a monster run to claim their first AL East title in 22 years.

There might come a point in time where the Jays will have to trade one of the best and most popular players in franchise history. For now, that time can wait.

Coming next week: The case for trading Josh Donaldson.

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