TORONTO – Ross Atkins offered little clarity about his intentions for Josh Donaldson after the superstar third baseman’s recent heartfelt overture, although the Toronto Blue Jays general manager left little doubt that Jose Bautista’s run with the franchise he helped revive is over.
The tumult over two of the club’s most important players follows the departure of another beloved slugger, Edwin Encarnacion, a year ago, and represents a significant challenge for the front office after a disappointing 76-86 finish in 2017.
Certainly the transition away from Bautista was to be expected and Atkins confirmed the Blue Jays had already informed the iconic right-fielder that they will turn down the club end of a $17-million mutual option for 2018.
Still, the definitive way in which the door was shut on a possible return, even if couched in the usual caveats about not “closing any doors and speaking in absolutes,” will be jarring for some fans after the outpouring of support for him as the season wound down.
“Based on the construction of our roster we feel it’s unlikely that he’s a part of the solution moving forward,” Atkins said during an end-of-season review session with writers. “Having said that, Jose’s career is remarkable and the last game of the season in Toronto certainly speaks to what he’s meant to this city and organization.
“Out of our respect for him, we articulated that at the time, because we wanted to make sure he was fully aware of where things stood with us. As importantly, we want to make sure when he comes back here he will be celebrated in a very strong way.”
Whether Donaldson follows him out the door after the 2018 season, when the 2015 AL MVP becomes eligible for free agency, if not sooner isn’t clear. On the final day of the season, the slugger revealed to Sportsnet that he met with Atkins a couple of weeks ago to “let him know where I stand and where I stand is I want to be a Blue Jay.”
Donaldson said specifics about a contract didn’t come up, but that he felt it important to inform the club of where his heart is before the off-season played out.
Atkins kept the club’s thinking hidden behind a thick wall of platitudes, saying that hearing Donaldson’s desire to stay put was “awesome,” that “any interaction with our players that we can have is better than not,” and that his commitment to the city “is great for us to hear.”
So, they’ll consider an extension for their best player after shedding Encarnacion and Bautista?
“We always do that. You’re constantly thinking about what makes sense for the organization and you have to do that with more than one individual,” Atkins replied. “Obviously he’s an extremely important one, we will definitely spend time thinking about that.”
Donaldson has a year of arbitration eligibility remaining and estimates at what he can be expected to command next year range from $20 million to $25 million. In 2019, the Blue Jays have commitments of $20 million each to Russ Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, but their guarantees ebb dramatically beyond that, with only Tulowitzki’s $14 million and $2.5 million for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on the books in 2020.
The Blue Jays value payroll flexibility and that would seemingly work against a Donaldson extension, which surely begins at nine figures. But given how dominant a player he is, seeking to lock him up now before he hits the market would put in place a cornerstone ahead of the eventual arrival of top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in the next couple of years.
Regardless of what happens longer-term with Donaldson, the Blue Jays remain poised to leverage his final year of club control on the field trying to contend rather than seeking to reallocate him into a package of prospects.
Talk of the Cardinals’ interest in his him has been around since April and they have an interesting mix of surplus outfielders that could make them an intriguing trade partner. But while Atkins suggested the Blue Jays could make a trade with “a piece that comes off our major-league team,” he sure sounded like he was talking about Donaldson when he said, “a lot of people have asked us a lot of questions about the potential of trading very, very good players and I won’t mention them by name. The only way we’re going to do that is if we can make our major-league team better and feel we can continue to contend.”
Getting sufficient big-league ready value back for Donaldson is highly unlikely, and he can always be dealt for prospects at the non-waiver trade deadline if 2018 goes sideways. So while his name will bubble up in the usual assortment of off-season nonsense, expect him to be there in Dunedin next spring when training camp opens.
Whether or not he arrives in a walk year the way Encarnacion and Bautista did is far less certain, with the possibility that he leaves the way they did far more touchy.