Jon Heyman: After brilliant start, Donaldson era in Toronto ends with thud

The Josh Donaldson era in Toronto could not have begun better as he won the MVP in 2015, his first year there. It also could not have ended much worse, with a dispute over when Donaldson was ready to go on waivers following three missed months and a surprise late revelation that Donaldson, at least at some point late in the waiver process, preferred to stay rather than be traded.


That last bit of news, that Donaldson had interest in staying in Toronto, which somehow reached interested teams, almost surely helped further drag the price down to nothing what like Jays people originally envisioned, which was a take along the lines of the “Manny Machado deal.” Though there were five teams interested and involved — the Braves, Astros, Cardinals and Yankees in addition to the Indians — according to sources Toronto had to settle for little-known right-hander Julian Merryweather, a 26-year-old who had to be designated as a player to be named later since he himself was on the DL following early-season Tommy John surgery and ineligible to go through waivers, which was necessary as a player on Cleveland's 40-man roster.



So the Jays — who were obviously obligated to trade him for what they could once they made the decision they couldn't extend a qualifying offer to the oft-injured player — didn’t get anything close to what they hoped for. That was mostly the result of a trio of injuries that kept Donaldson off a major-league field for more than his last three months with the team (and a bit due to the word going around the league that he wanted to stay put).

And ultimately, like his old team, Donaldson, too, will have to adjust his contractual goals far downward, perhaps along the very same lines — from stratospheric to something quite a bit less than that.

The Jays had long determined they could not even extend that one-year qualifying offer, which is expected to be about $18 million, to Donaldson; beyond the fact they have third-base possibilities in the recently acquired Brandon Drury and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (an expected early-season call up next year), the real issues were the ailments that made him unavailable for all but 36 games this season: a shoulder injury and two calf injuries. While no serious structural issues were detected by Toronto's doctors, the pain was obviously severe enough to keep Donaldson away from the field until the very last minute before a trade was even possible.

Donaldson now will likely have to settle for a one-year “pillow”-type contract to reset his value (or at the outset a relative bargain two-year deal in the winter after he and the Jays were discussing much bigger numbers; more on that below). Word is, that is surely a far cry from what he could have had from the team he preferred this winter.

Contrary to some suggestions out there that they never talked numbers or made an offer, word is the Jays extended an offer for more than the three-year, $75 million deal the Phillies gave to free agent pitcher Jake Arrieta, another major star older than 30. The belief is they were flexible to go at least a bit higher. Charlie Blackmon, yet another star on the wrong side of 30 (but without the superstar pedigree of Donaldson) late this winter agreed to a five-year, $94 million extension that took his total deal to $108 million, and the belief is that the Jays, understanding Donaldson's annual salary would have had to be higher but more focused on total dollars, might have reached close to that region had talks continued.

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However, word is that after Donaldson initially seemed willing to continue talks, bringing brief hope for a deal, ultimately his camp suggested a figure range that put the sides far apart enough that talks discontinued.

Of course, obviously, no one expected a trio of injuries to decimate Donaldson's season. That destroyed his trade value.

But what really surprised Jays people -- who initially heard Donaldson wanted to go to a contender -- was how Donaldson didn’t seem interested in facilitating a trade after originally saying he wanted to go to a contender. It isn't known how word got out that Donaldson didn't want to go anywhere, but to Toronto's detriment, it did. A couple team executives on the night of the deadline expressed the belief to Fancred that they shouldn't give up much for Donaldson if he didn't want to go.

Anyway, word was filtering around the league that Donaldson preferred to stay put, well before we tweeted that was the case. There was also said to be tension between the team and Donaldson's camp during this waiver period just before the deadline -- but Toronto needed to make the best deal possible since it's out of the race and they couldn't risk extending a qualifying offer. And ultimately, that widely-known desire to stay may have killed any hope for getting anything commensurate with Donaldson’s skill level.



At the July 31 deadline Jays honchos Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins extracted a haul from Houston for Roberto Osuna, a reliever banned from the game for a spousal abuse incident that is still pending criminally in Canada, and received a very nice return of two potential starting position players — Billy McKinney and Drury — for rotation rental J.A. Happ. But for their biggest star, they were in a bind from which they could not escape. Teams weren’t prepared to offer much for a player who hadn’t played for three months in the majors and they believed now wasn’t anxious to join a contender, regardless of the reason.

While Donaldson was looking good at the plate, he was killing his value to the point where the Jays only received Merryweather, the 26-year-old pitcher with a sparse resume who himself was still on the shelf. The Yankees, Braves, Astros and Cardinals are believed to have shown trade interest, and while the Indians may have held a slight edge due to the Jays braintrust's familiarity with Cleveland’s system, word that he didn’t feel ready to play every day — or frankly, that he didn't want to be dealt — meant they received only two offers they felt they could even consider.

Donaldson, obviously an immense talent, may not feel entirely prepared to play at the big-league level, but soon after the trade he hit a grand slam early for the Columbus Clippers, the Indians’ Triple-A farm team, and should have a chance to make a late impression and recover at least a little bit of his value. It’s obviously too late for the Jays, however.

Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and FancredSports.com. You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.

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