Thriving Donaldson’s return offers Blue Jays, Toronto chance to move on

Atlanta Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos joins the Starting Lineup to discuss how much Josh Donaldson loved his time in Toronto, and what kind of fan reception he expects for the Bringer of Rain’s return to the Rogers Centre.

A year ago this week, the Blue Jays traded Josh Donaldson and cash to Cleveland, ending weeks of speculation about a potential deal featuring the former MVP.

At the time, Donaldson was hurt, rehabbing a calf injury at Class-A Dunedin. Under those circumstances, the return was underwhelming: a player to be named later, who was eventually revealed to be right-hander Julian Merryweather.

Now, as Donaldson prepares to return to Toronto for the first time since the trade, he’s one of the National League’s most productive players. He ranks eighth in the NL in wins above replacement (4.5) and 10th in home runs (32) — familiar-looking numbers to those who watched Donaldson in Toronto.

For the next two days, the Blue Jays will again see that production first-hand. So what do we make of Donaldson’s resurgence? One year later, should we view the Blue Jays’ decision to trade him any differently? Or has enough time passed to finally move on?

With the benefit of hindsight, sure, the Blue Jays should have traded him after 2017 or even after 2016. We know now that the Blue Jays didn’t contend in 2017 or 2018. Along the way, there were chances to turn Donaldson into a meaningful prospect return (including Jack Flaherty, according to one report).

Of course that’s an over-simplification and an unsatisfying one at that. Knowing what we knew at this time last year, the Blue Jays had two choices: hold onto Donaldson or trade him for what they could, getting the most out of a pending free agent who hadn’t played in a big-league game in three months.

In some ways it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if the Blue Jays had made Donaldson a qualifying offer. Had he accepted and returned to form, there’s little doubt the Blue Jays would have been able to get more back in a trade this year.

Yet for a few reasons, the qualifying offer route never appeared to be a serious consideration. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. coming up at third base and young position players in need of DH at-bats, where would Donaldson have played in Toronto? Realistically there was no clear place for him unless you could get buy-in as a utility player, and that would have been a tough sell for any recent MVP on a losing team, especially considering the circumstances surrounding his departure.

At the time of the deal, GM Ross Atkins acknowledged that Donaldson had ‘frustrations’ with the team’s high-performance department and how the trade process played out. And after signing with the Braves, Donaldson credited former Blue Jays and current Braves trainers George Poulis and Mike Frostad, saying “they know me and they know how to keep me on the field.” Some read that as a veiled shot at the Blue Jays. Either way, this wasn’t a player staying in Toronto for the long haul. It was time for both sides to move on.

With that in mind, the Blue Jays chose not to qualify Donaldson, instead trading him for what they could get: rehabbing pitching prospect Merryweather. A year later, Merryweather’s recovery from Tommy John surgery has stalled due to forearm fatigue although he touched 100 m.p.h. earlier in the summer. At this stage, with just two rehab starts in a Blue Jays uniform, that return still looks underwhelming. Maybe Merryweather will surprise us all once his rest period ends, but at this point he’s sidelined and has yet to make his MLB debut. He’s not a kid either — at 28, he’s a year older than Aaron Sanchez.

Meanwhile, Donaldson signed with the Braves for one year and $23 million a few months after the trade. With a .910 OPS since then, he looks like his old self — especially lately. Since the start of July, Donaldson ranks fourth in baseball with 17 home runs. The difference? The calf and shoulder issues that bothered Donaldson in 2018 have subsided and he has played in 129 games with the Braves, seventh in the NL.

For Atlanta, the signing looks like a huge win. Credit Alex Anthopoulos for knowing the player and making a low-risk, high-upside bet. The Dallas Keuchel signing looks similarly shrewd and now the Braves, winners of eight of nine, are headed toward a second straight NL East title.

In hindsight, the Blue Jays sold Donaldson at the lowest point of his value. Even in Cleveland last year he posted a .920 OPS down the stretch. With Atlanta, he’s sustained that for a full season. Of course it’s regrettable that the Blue Jays didn’t get more for Donaldson.

At the same time, let’s not rewrite history. The Blue Jays were a team on the brink of transition. In the last calendar year they’ve traded Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, Kendrys Morales, Marcus Stroman and Sanchez. Donaldson didn’t fit here anymore with so many young players in need of at-bats. So, the Blue Jays traded him for what they could. Better to take a shot on a prospect than get nothing at all.

The thought process behind the decision made sense. Even so, that didn’t assure the Blue Jays of anything. As Donaldson returns to Toronto, it’s more apparent than ever that the Blue Jays sold low. Unfortunately, a trade that looked disappointing at first glance still looks that way a year later.

But is that really the point anymore? Donaldson has moved on, proving beyond any doubt that he’s still an impact player. This coming winter he has a chance to sign for far more than $23 million. As for the Blue Jays, they have moved on just as swiftly, turning over their roster to make room for an exciting young core.

So while it’s fair to wonder if the ending could have played out differently, Tuesday night also offers Blue Jays fans the chance to look back a little further and celebrate Donaldson for what he did during his first three years in Toronto.

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