TORONTO – The fourth edition of Josh Donaldson’s BaseBowl charity fundraiser was different than the previous three, for reasons beyond the star third baseman’s recent setback with his troublesome left calf.
Uncertainty is all around Donaldson these days, from his status on the field, to his marketability as an asset ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, to his longer-term future with the Toronto Blue Jays.
That one of the franchise’s greatest players is unable to provide any current value with a nagging injury that may prevent the club from leveraging him into some future value amid a lost season is a nightmare scenario for both sides.
If the end of their relationship is imminent, these are sad final legs of a memory-filled journey.
“I don’t think about that. We try to stay in the present,” Donaldson replied Thursday when asked if the thought that this BaseBowl may be his last in Toronto. “This is a great event to try and help give back to the community that’s done a lot for me and my family.”
Donaldson’s sold-out event, in support of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Toronto and Jays Care, is a demonstration of the 32-year-old’s commitment to a city that embraced him after his bold Nov. 28, 2014 acquisition from the Oakland Athletics.
Helping the Blue Jays end a post-season drought dating back to 1993 with just the second MVP campaign in team history made him an instant star, and he’s delivered a remarkable 22.6 WAR (per Fangraphs) and counting since the trade. Asked about his connection to Toronto, Donaldson replied: “I feel like it’s very strong. From Day 1 they took me in and supported me.”
Business trumps all, of course, and the pending free agent and Blue Jays have been headed for a split ever since extension talks over the winter went nowhere.
Donaldson first experienced shoulder and calf issues during the spring, he went on the DL with shoulder inflammation in May and has been fighting through calf troubles since leaving a game at Boston on May 28 after experiencing tightness. He was preparing for a rehabilitation assignment last weekend when he experienced what he described as “pretty significant strain.”
The plan for him is to rest for three weeks before deciding how to proceed and Donaldson said “we are reaching out to different kinds of doctors to go through some things, to check some boxes off to see if there are some reasons” why the calf troubles keep recurring.
In the meantime the clock is ticking, with the Blue Jays languishing at 37-43 and facing double-digit deficits in both the AL East and wild-card races. The longer he’s out, the more risk there is that both his earning power in free agency and his trade value to the Blue Jays diminishes.
“The circumstances are what they are. I can’t control that, I can’t control having this continue to be nagging,” said Donaldson. “All I can control is my attitude and how I go about my business and work. I try to go out there and give it everything I can, whether it’s my rehab or I’m on the field. I treat this no different and stay as positive as I can be, even though it’s difficult at times.”
All this leaves the Blue Jays with some increasingly complicated calculations to make.
Part of the rationale in keeping Donaldson during the off-season was that the potential returns offered up over the winter didn’t outweigh the opportunity to win with him this year. If things turned out the way they have in fact turned out, he could always be traded before the deadline, the thinking went.
While that remains a possibility, Donaldson would need to return shortly after the all-star break and hit the ground running to convince a contender he’s healthy enough to contribute. Even then, the Blue Jays may now be forced to eat some or all of what’s left on his $23-million contract to extract some sort of value, or make their return conditional on how much he plays.
(The Blue Jays, it’s worth noting, have taken on money to get deals more to their liking the past two deadlines.)
A waiver trade in August is another possibility but is far more complicated, and the Blue Jays need also to consider whether they’d be better off letting Donaldson walk as a free agent and extending him a qualifying offer to receive a compensatory draft pick when he departs.
Last off-season’s qualifying offer was $17.4 million – the mean of the top 125 salaries in the majors – and if Donaldson rejects it and leaves, the Blue Jays would receive a compensatory draft pick at the end of the Competitive Balance Round B, just before the third round.
Given what that would allow them to do in the 2019 draft, it may become their best option.
On the flip side, if Donaldson remains sidelined for an extended period, or struggles once he’s back, at some point it might make more sense for him to accept, rebuild his value in 2019 and then hit the market afterwards without the potential of the qualifying offer being an anvil.
For the Blue Jays, having him back on a one-year deal with top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. set to take over at third base in a period of transition doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Given that through 40 home dates, the Blue Jays are down 425,459 fans year over year for an average of 10,636 per game, the second-largest drop in baseball behind the Miami Marlins, it’s very possible their payroll gets cut next year from the current $170 million or so.
The Blue Jays have $53.9 million in guarantees to Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. next year, while Justin Smoak ($6 million with approaching escalators that can push it to $8 million) and Yangervis Solarte ($5.5 million) have sure-to-be-exercised options that push the total to $65.4-$67.4 million.
Arbitration-eligible players could add roughly $30 million to that total, even with Roberto Osuna facing a potential salary freeze if not a cut (arbitration-eligible players can be reduced up to 20 per cent) on his $5.3 million in 2018 in the wake of his arrest, presuming he isn’t traded.
Marcus Stroman (platforming from a $6.5-million salary), Aaron Sanchez ($2.7 million), Kevin Pillar ($3.25 million), Randal Grichuk ($2.6 million), Aledmys Diaz ($2 million) and Devon Travis ($1.45 million) are all due raises while Ryan Tepera and Joe Biagini will be first time through the process.
The Blue Jays also have to pay Jaime Garcia a $2-million buyout. Under former president and CEO Paul Beeston, buyouts were accounted for in the current year, rather than in the option season. It’s unclear if current president and CEO Mark Shapiro operates in the same way.
The imminent subtractions of other pending free agents, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada among them, will leave holes to fill on the roster and may further impact attendance, which at an average of 28,332 so far, ranks 14th in the majors and speaks to the passion and dedication of the fanbase.
Under those circumstances, would they risk having Donaldson accept a qualifying offer at roughly $18 million?
All of which underlines just how much is at stake for both Donaldson and the Blue Jays in the coming weeks, and made the third baseman’s Thursday-night fundraiser all the more different.
Donaldson chose to support Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Toronto because “it rings close to home. Growing up in a single-parent home, especially not really having a father/mentor in my life, I definitely had people able to step up to the plate and help guide me in certain directions, and I think it’s a huge program for people in the same type of situations, who don’t have that person to help guide them through the way.”
As for how he and the Blue Jays navigate through their current situation, that’s all on his calf.
“When I step on the field I expect to either continue to be able to do what I’ve done in the past or be better,” he said. “I’ve been working extremely hard and feel like I’ve made some pretty big strides in other areas, shoring up some things. I’ve just got to get my calf to work and work properly. I think that’s just allowing the course of time to play out, give it a little bit of time to heal. I feel like it’s responded well so far.
“We’ll see how it goes after that.”