The time is now for Blue Jays to shop Josh Donaldson

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

As the MLB GM meetings wrap up and we look ahead to the winter meetings in December, it’s understandable why the Toronto Blue Jays front office might be a little shy about selling off their best player, Josh Donaldson, who should quite properly be made available to teams desperate to pay top dollar for an elite third basemen.

After all, it was only a year ago this time that team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins were buyers, planning to drop $80-million or more on another franchise great, Edwin Encarnacion, only to get timed out of the transaction before they could figure out which jacket they had left their debit card in.

The blow-by-blow of what went wrong when shopping for Edwin was expertly documented by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi at the time, and there would seem to be blame on both sides. But in the end, one of the Blue Jays all-timers signed with the Cleveland Indians for a team-friendly guarantee of $60-million over three years, predictably helping the Indians reach the ALDS. Regardless of the how it went down for the front office, it was an epic flop. It was made worse when the free agent they were so eager to sign to replace Encarnacion – Kendrys Morales – was a flop in his own right, while the club flubbed on its stated goal of getting younger, more athletic and more left-handed at the plate.

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With that track record it’s easy to understand why Shapiro and Atkins would want to take the path of least resistance and play it safe this off-season. That way any mistakes can only blowback on them so much. Maybe that’s why they have indicated that they have no intention of trading Donaldson, the last of the franchise’s best players from its back-to-back playoff appearances in 2015-16 still standing.

There is little doubt trading Donaldson would risk alienating fans and invigorating critic — who have plenty of ammunition regardless — given the flat-lining of the club’s fortunes this past season, the failed off-season a year ago and even the misfiring of high-profile off-field initiatives such as their heralded high performance department.

Donaldson said his early season calf injury was a result of “doing a [club proscribed] exercise that I probably shouldn’t have been doing at the time,” while Atkins allowed that the bumpy rehabilitations of Aaron Sanchez (blisters) and Devon Travis (knee) were in part due to “some of the inefficiency of our communication … that happens in transitions, so that’s on me.”

But here’s hoping that Shapiro and Atkins can drown out the noise and trade Donaldson anyway. They have a team with more holes than they can conceivably fill this winter, and moving Donaldson represents their best chance of shoring up a cracked foundation. And let’s not forget the one unfiltered beacon of light in the organization, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – acclaimed as the best minor-league prospect in all of baseball – is a third baseman.

Would the fanbase stand for it? They came out in droves when the post Roy Halladay rebuild began showing signs of paying off, the seeds for the magical revival of 2015 were sown in 2013 and 2014. Show them a plan, prove it works and it has now been established the Blue Jays fanbase is one of the most resilient and vibrant in all of baseball. Try to fool them with half measures — as was the case for most of the post-World Series years — and they’ll sniff it out and stay away.

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Not making a move with Donaldson would be a half measure. When Encarnacion left the engine light went on. When Jose Bautista cratered there was smoke rising. And with fellow 30-somethings Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki approaching their own production cliffs, the only wise course is to move the one over-ripening asset they can still fetch a respectable return.

It was a move that could have been made at the trade deadline this past season as the Blue Jays were skidding along, vainly trying to convince themselves that they were still in the wild card race. But with Donaldson at rock-bottom value as he was trying to find his stroke after the first half of his season was spoiled by his calf injury, they wisely held tight.

Donaldson subsequently delivered an end-of-season flourish for the ages, slashing .300/.410/.690 with 24 homers, 49 RBI and 39 walks over his final 57 games, pushing his end-of-year OPS to .944, an eyelash better than the .939 he posted during his 2015 AL MVP season.

As a result, Donaldson’s value is now probably as high as it can be for a soon-to-be 32-year-old coming off an injury-challenged year with just one season remaining on his deal. The moment Donaldson steps on the field at spring training his value will only diminish, not unlike a used car being driven off the lot.

The only way keeping Donaldson will pay off is if he can deliver an MVP-level 2018; the Blue Jays reconfigure one of the most anemic outfields in all of MLB while getting something close to replacement-level play out of their middle infield and not having Russell Martin turn to stone as Aaron Sanchez makes 30 blister-free starts.

That’s a lot of things that must go right.

And even then the Blue Jays will have to wrestle with giving $150-million to a high-mileage icon in his late prime or risk losing him in free agency for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick. Given they didn’t want to go there salary-wise with Bautista, it seems unlikely they would for Donaldson, nor should they.

And if that’s the case, it makes sense to shop their marquee third baseman now, while they might be able to acquire some young talent to bridge the gap between their elite minor leaguers and the 20-something duo of Marcus Stroman and Sanchez. And if that doesn’t work, they will be better positioned to embark on a full-blown sell-off if they need to do the complete rebuild they seem to want to avoid at all costs.

The trade market for Donaldson promises to be better in November and December than in July or August. At the moment there are a number teams looking for help at third base and a few more that might be open to acquiring an elite infielder, even if it means moving pieces around to accommodate one of Donaldson’s stature. It’s flexibility that rarely presents itself in-season.

How would Donaldson look hitting in front of Mike Trout with the Los Angeles Angels, putting a new twist on their annual race for the AL MVP? The San Francisco Giants and New York Mets could use help on the corner.

But by far the most obvious trade partner are the St. Louis Cardinals – who have already pledged to move off their surplus of major league-ready outfielders and are in search of a right-handed bat with power. It’s no surprise that Donaldson’s name has already been linked with them. With luck and the right major-league ready return, the Blue Jays might be even more competitive in 2018 than they were last year, all while getting younger, deeper and cheaper.

It’s worth a try.

The Blue Jays have squeezed all the juice left from the playoff teams that Shapiro and Atkins inherited. A year ago they stumbled trying to keep the core together.

Let the shopping begin.

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