Jonah Keri: The case for trading Josh Donaldson

Marcus Stroman pitched 5.2 scoreless innings and crushed his first career home run to help his cause as the Jays used the long ball to hammer the Braves 9-0.

Last week, some guy on the Internet argued that the Blue Jays should keep Josh Donaldson through the rest of this season, and possibly longer. That guy was dead wrong. Handsome and smart and cool, but dead wrong.

Baseball players, like almost everything else on this planet, are depreciating assets. The moment a player makes the Big Leagues, his six-year countdown to free agency begins. Aging exacerbates the situation. Studies of player age curves suggest that position players peak earlier today than they did at the height of the PED era, with their best years often falling between age 22 and 26.

Both of those trends bode ill for Josh Donaldson’s trade value. The 2015 MVP can test free agency at the end of next season. He’s 31 years-old, and will be 33 when his name comes up for bid at the 2018 Winter Meetings. The longer the Jays wait to trade him, the more his value to other teams will shrink.

Already, we’ve seen subtle signs of skills erosion — Donaldson’s defence has slipped in recent seasons. Per Baseball Info Solutions, he saved 20 more runs than the average third baseman in 2014, tops in the majors. In 2015 he was +11, good for sixth-best in baseball. Then last season, Donaldson saved just two more runs than the average third baseman, dropping him to a middle-of-the-pack 14th. Even acknowledging the occasional bumpiness of advanced defensive metrics, that’s a steady and notable decline for a once Gold Glove-calibre fielder.

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The good news is that Donaldson remains an elite hitter. In 2015-2016, only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera were more productive hitters on a park-adjusted basis. A hitter that good playing a premium position carries enormous value, even if his glove merely hovers around league average.

Think of all the contending teams with holes at third base. The Cardinals could move sudden world-beater Jedd Gyorko to second and slide Donaldson into the middle of the lineup. The Astros could move an erratic-fielding rookie Alex Bregman to DH, shunt Carlos Beltran to part-time duty, and supercharge an already loaded lineup. And if the Jays want to flout tradition, they could open the floor for two of the teams in most desperate need of a star third baseman: the Yankees and Red Sox.

Get multiple teams to vie for a year and a half of Donaldson’s services, with the potential promise of Donaldson as the player that shoves a contender over the hump and into the World Series, and the bidding could shoot through the roof. That kind of bidding war could give the Jays all kinds of options too. With Jose Bautista, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, and a handful of role players facing free agency at season’s end, Toronto could acquire a boatload of help for the future, rebuilding the farm system to the liking of head honchos Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins after the all-in trades of Alex Anthopoulos thinned the prospect ranks.

The Jays could cut deeper too, marketing a 2018 free agent like J.A. Happ (if healthy), and maybe even shopping high-priced veterans like Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, if management’s willing to absorb a bunch of money to fetch better prospects in return.

A split-the-difference scenario could also make sense. Rather than sell off virtually every player over 25, the Jays could be selective in their dealing, marketing Donaldson and the free-agents-to-be while hanging onto the rest. Rather than acquiring pups just coming out of rookie league, Toronto could reload by trading Donaldson and company for more advanced prospects who could help the big league cause fairly soon. With Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez forming one of the best young 1-2 pitching punches in the league, a couple of well-placed moves could keep the team competitive and maybe even spur another run of contention. The aging Yankees’ ability to wave goodbye to older players, stock up the farm system, and never fall below .500 after their 95-win 2012 season, and now find themselves back in contention, would be the model to follow.

There are certainly some good reasons to consider keeping Donaldson as long as possible. As noted last week, the Jays have become attendance world-beaters and a TV ratings powerhouse; any abrupt move to unload one of the team’s signature players could jeopardize that momentum. They’re also playing better ball.

Still, the negatives outweigh the positives. A five-game winning streak had abruptly turned into a three-game losing streak, against the lowly Braves no less. The team’s 18-24 record, bad as it is, has actually been a bit lucky, given the Jays’ good fortune when it comes to their pitchers scattering hits and avoiding big innings. To replicate the 89 wins they bagged last year, the Blue Jays would need to go 72-49 the rest of the way, a .595 winning percentage reached by only one team in 2016: The historically great Chicago Cubs. These are incredibly difficult goals to reach, even if and when all the Jays’ big guns returns.

The final strike against re-signing Donaldson is a demographic one. It might feel good in the moment to give one of the greatest players in franchise history a multi-year extension. But paying huge dollars for Donaldson’s decline years will hurt the team’s payroll flexibility for years to come, all in the name of diminishing returns.

If the Jays aren’t going to bet on a player to defy a century of baseball evidence and flourish into his late-30s, then a trade becomes the most logical course of action. And if a trade is the best path forward, then making one soon, while Donaldson’s value to other teams is near its peak, is the best call.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

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