Josh Donaldson awaits long-term discussions with Blue Jays

Josh Donaldson may have tripped up his words but he made it clear he is playing baseball for his love of the game, not the cheque that comes with it.

TORONTO — Josh Donaldson has spent his off-season golfing, working out, and watching the Jacksonville Jaguars get within a game of the Super Bowl (he likes a team with a strong defence). He also took time to put pen to paper on a one-year, $23-million deal for 2018, a record-setting contract for an arbitration-eligible player.

That’s all well and good. But one thing the third baseman’s off-season has not included, and one thing he’d likely prefer it had, is a discussion with the Toronto Blue Jays front office regarding a contract extension beyond 2018.

“As we talked about at the end of the season last year, I definitely voiced my opinion that I would like to stay here. And that hasn’t changed,” Donaldson said. “But there are certain things that go into it. [The one-year deal] was the first step that needed to be taken care of. And we went about it. And I’m very happy with how things have went. I’m looking forward to how things are going to play out in the future.”

As you’re likely all too aware, Donaldson is currently slated to become a free agent following the upcoming season. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball — a generational talent who, when healthy, is a perennial MVP contender.

He’s played only three seasons in Toronto and is already tied for 11th on the franchise’s all-time leaderboard in wins above replacement (Donaldson and George Bell each sit at 21.1 WAR). Barring disaster, he’ll close in on the top five this season, surpassing franchise icons like Roberto Alomar and Devon White.

And if he had it his way, he’d play many more years in Toronto, and maybe someday top that list. He’s communicated that privately to the team, and publicly to anyone who will listen.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

But he’s also keenly aware of his value — of the fact the Blue Jays have reaped an incredible benefit in having him play as productively as he has for as little compensation as he’s earned (Donaldson’s grossed just under $33 million over his three seasons in Toronto) since he was traded here from the Oakland Athletics.

And, of course, the Blue Jays are aware of that as well. They would never waste Donaldson’s time, and insult their best player, with a low-ball offer. If they’re going to engage with Donaldson’s representatives about a potential extension, they’ll have to come with a legitimate, competitive pitch that won’t easily be dwarfed on the open market.

Donaldson says that hasn’t happened yet. But it sounds like he’s holding out hope that sometime in the next six to eight months it might.

“My mom always told me, you don’t always get things right away when you want them,” Donaldson said. “Patience is a virtue. And I definitely think being patient has worked out for me up until this point. And I’m going to continue to do that.

“I’ve said I want to be here. That’s pretty much all I can say. I’m not the one that makes the decisions,” he continued. “I believe the situation will become more fluid when the time is right. The time hasn’t been right to this moment, to my knowledge. But we were able to accomplish what was ultimately needed to be accomplished at the moment. I’m happy about it. I’m sure [the Blue Jays front office] is happy about it. We’re just going to continue to move forward.”

So, that’s where things stand. The door certainly remains wide open to talks between Donaldson and the Blue Jays over the next several months. The key will be finding common ground where the Blue Jays are accepting of the risk they’ll take on with an expensive, multi-year contract for an aging player, and Donaldson feels he’s being appropriately compensated for the exceptional production he has thus far provided. Whether or not the sides can reach that middle point remains to be seen.

This year’s stuck-in-neutral free agent market is no doubt playing a factor as well. Many of the highest-calibre players available remain unsigned with pitchers and catchers set to report in less than a month. No player has inked a deal for longer than three-years, or received a guarantee of more than $60 million. A player of Donaldson’s ability and track record would certainly be looking for far more than that.

From Toronto’s perspective, it makes sense to wait and see the contracts this off-season’s top free agents end up signing before making any overtures to Donaldson. It could be a year that recalibrates what future free agents — especially those in their mid-30s, like Donaldson — can expect from the market. Especially considering next winter’s free agent crop is particularly flush with talent, as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw are expected to hit free agency.

Of course, the truly strange thing about this year’s marketplace is that, to this point, no one has been able to predict it or the aftereffects it might have. Some believe it’s a one-year anomaly. Many have speculated about possible ownership collusion. Others wonder if the current system is irreparably broken. All anyone can agree upon is that something is up.

So, has Donaldson been monitoring the free agent market?

“It doesn’t seem like there’s much that has gone on. So, I haven’t had to monitor much,” Donaldson said. “Ultimately, I’m not going to speak on it at the moment. We’ve got to see how it ends up playing out. Because, I don’t know — I’m not in these players’ situations. I don’t know what’s been going on. I don’t know the type of deals that have been thrown out there.

“So, whenever things do pan out, I think there will be discussions about how it ended up playing out.”

For now, Donaldson is focused on playing a full season in 2018, after missing nearly a third of 2017 due to stubborn right calf injuries. The 32-year-old’s been working out on his own this off-season, after spending last winter in Florida training with Toronto’s high-performance staff.

That was the first time in Donaldson’s career that he’s spent an off-season training with his major-league club. And after his injury struggles in 2017 — the first time he’s played fewer than 155 games since becoming a major-league regular in 2013 — he feels it’s important to return to what worked for him before.

“It’s just about me getting back to the basic fundamentals of what I believe has led me to be healthy and successful throughout the season,” Donaldson said, noting that he’s had conversations with Toronto’s high-performance staff about his routine throughout the winter. “I think there’s a lot of great information out there and that our people do. I think they do a great job. But I definitely also feel that what I was doing before was also working for me. It’s worked for me in the past. So, I just wanted to get back to where I was going and implement some things that I have learned from [the Blue Jays] as well.”

Beyond that, Donaldson’s focusing on making minor improvements he feels will be beneficial to his game. You won’t see a completely different hitter when Donaldson digs into the box for the first time in 2018. But you will see an athlete who’s constantly trying to find an edge as a hitter, and forever looking to adjust to the game before it adjusts to him.

“I’m not looking to completely overhaul anything. I’m looking at sustaining what I’ve already created and continuing to adapt and be better at certain areas,” Donaldson said. “I know that I can be better.”

Donaldson believes the Blue Jays can be better, too, after finishing fourth in the AL East with a 76-86 record in 2017. He pointed to a full, healthy season from Aaron Sanchez as one of the biggest factors that could influence a turnaround. He also said he’s eager to see how Toronto’s front office uses the rest of its remaining payroll to improve the team.

And, perhaps most importantly, Donaldson said he’s putting much of the onus for improving Toronto’s fortunes on himself. He wants to stay healthy, stay productive, and never have another year like 2017, when he missed the playoffs for the first time in his big-league career.

“I set a pretty high standard for myself in general. It’s not something that’s uncommon, for me to be in this situation where a team’s success kind of depends on how I play,” Donaldson said. “It’s not something that I shy away from. I want to be that guy. I have been that guy. And my job is not to only find ways for myself to be successful, but also for some of these younger guys to continue to learn about themselves — and continue to help these guys get better and improve to help our team as well.

“Staying on the field is important. The guys that we had in our clubhouse last year were very capable of winning — and winning the division,” Donaldson continued. “Whatever could have went wrong for us last year, went wrong. And it happened early. And we weren’t really able to bounce back. And that was difficult. You try to learn and you try to combat that.

“And I believe that we have the right players and right people in order to do that.”

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