Article Written by Adam Corsair
The topic of extending or resigning Josh Donaldson to a long-term deal has been a recurring one ever since the regular season came to a close last year. Fans that have watched this team for a very long time, as well as those that hopped on the Jays' bandwagon in 2015 when the team acquired Donaldson via trade, feel that he is a difference maker. As a former MVP, as well as a player that has propelled the Jays offense to new heights since he joined, he has overtaken the mantle formerly held by José Bautista as the face of the organization. To many, it's a no-brainer - just sign him. Whatever it takes, no matter how much or how long, he is way too valuable for the Front Office to allow him to walk away and explore the open market. The narrative extends further for such fans as it's almost incomprehensible for the Jays to be able to have any sort of success - both short-term and long-term - without him. Simply, the overwhelming sentiment is to get a deal done and fast.
Yet, what many of these individuals do not want to accept is that by simply giving in to Donaldson's contract demands (or rather, his expectations of his future value translated to the fiscal ilk), is incredibly irresponsible for any organization. It's irresponsible to overpay for a player, as doing so runs the risk of putting a stranglehold on their ability to acquire talent in order to keep the team competitive. Sure, the response to this is predictable - "Why can't Rogers just spend?! They have the money! Just spend it!!" Unfortunately, that's not how a business is run and, historically, it's not how the Blue Jays operate. Right or wrong, Rogers doesn't have a strong résumé of signing talent to long-term deals with successful results; especially signing talent that's approaching age 33. Here lays the disconnect between Donaldson and management. Brace yourself because a whole mess-load of tweets from our buddy Ben Nicholson-Smith from SportsNet are coming.
Now, before we try to unpack all of this, it's important to note that by no means does this close the door on a deal getting done. Certainly, if the Front Office and Donaldson (through his agent) maintain some sort of dialogue, it's not at all outside the realm of possibility that a compromise could be made, thereby reaching an agreement to stay a Blue Jay for the foreseeable future. I'm sure there are plenty of instances in the initial stages of negotiations when management and a player don't agree on the latter's value and, as a result "just aren't there." Yet, this is assuming that the dialogue is in its infancy. It's also certainly possible that the Jays and Donaldson have had some preliminary discussions prior to Spring Training, are far apart in terms of negotiations and compromise, and it's sort of at a tipping point in terms of negotiating further. Simply put, we don't know.
But, if we're to look at these remarks (as well as others in just a bit), it appears as though Donaldson and the Blue Jays are running around in circles and hitting dead ends. I imagine that Donaldson sees himself as a player that can contribute at an extremely high level (as he has) for many years to come; betting on the notion that he can stand the test of time and not fall behind as many players do at his age and/or older. Yet, the Blue Jays aren't unfamiliar with players that have contributed at a high level for the team and wished to get paid for what they have done, while at the same time standing incredibly confident that they can defy Father Time and continue their pace as a top-tier player.
Let's not forget, it was around this time two years ago that José Bautista was reportedly seeking a 5 year deal worth $150MM. Recall, Bautista was so adamant that he reportedly refused to negotiate and wanted to make the process as easy - and brief - as possible. Of course, the Jays balked at his demands and allowed him to take his chances on the open market. José remained confident that he could withstand the challenge of time, confidently stating that he took extremely good care of his body, watched what he ate, and abided by a strict workout regimen that kept his body performing at a high level. The results? Not only did Bautista not get the deal he wanted, but he ended up resigning with the Jays on a one year deal worth $18MM in January of 2017.
The point of reminding Jays fans of this is not to draw direct parallels between Bautista and Donaldson. Each case of free agency has their differences, and we shouldn't ignore them here. Bautista was 36 when he hit free agency and teams are much more hesitant to extend a multi-year deal to someone on that side of 30, if they are to give one at all. Moreover, we noticed a decline in José's production in the final year of his "hometown discounted" contract and had no reason to believe that he would return to his old form - even though many of us hoped that he would. Donaldson, on the other hand, will be at the tail end of 32 when free agency begins, and will turn 33 in early December. The demands of playing third base are much more than the demands that José had to bear in right field. Moreover, Donaldson isn't showing any signs that he is slowing down, and will have this entire season to plead and prove his case that his worthy of a lengthy and lucrative contract.
His 2017 numbers speak for themselves. Even at playing "just" 113 games due to having a strained right calf, Donaldson still produced at a high level for the Jays, producing 112 hits, 65 runs, 33 home runs, 76 walks, with a line of .270/.385/.559, an OPS of .944, over 415 at-bats and 496 plate appearances. If Donaldson was able to avoid the injury bug last year, who knows how much better numbers these could have been - and they're not even close to being bad as they stand! With numbers and production like this, as well as being adored by the Jays' fanbase, it's a hard sell to explain why you would let your MVP and face of the franchise walk away if you're management. That is, on face value, it's hard. When we examine the market for free agents this year, it becomes a bit easier to see where the trends are heading and precisely why management would be reluctant to shell out a mega-contract to someone that is no longer considered "young" in the game.
We don't have to do that much digging, as recently our friendly rivals - the Boston Red Sox - just signed free agent (and Scott Boras client) J.D. Martinez to a 5 year deal worth $110MM with two options included. Martinez was reportedly seeking a contract around the $200MM range this past November, and was predicted to land a contract around the $150MM range by MLB Trade Rumors. At age 30 (he'll turn 31 this August), not a single team was willing to pony up that kind of cash, much less the predicted salary from MLBTR. Even though Martinez had produced at a high level (.303/.376/.690, OPS of 1.066, 45 home runs, 131 hits, 104 RBI's, 85 runs, 53 walks, over 432 at-bats and 489 plate appearances), he didn't get what he thought he deserved in terms of monetary value. Sure, maybe the term was more or less the same, but the money just wasn't there as teams are becoming more and more hesitant to fork over that kind of cash to players. Moreover, Martinez will have the opportunity to opt-out of this deal after two seasons should he feel like gambling on the market being in his favor again. But even if he doesn't, it speaks volumes that one of the most trigger-happy franchises in the game waited for the market to come to them and still struck a deal with one of the (if not the) top free agents in the market this year at much less than predicted and demanded.
That is going to be the thing that - I think - will work against Donaldson. No matter how confident a player is in himself and his ability to defy the laws of time, teams just aren't willing to sign long-term deals to someone on the wrong side of his 30's. But, this isn't to say that there isn't a team out there that wouldn't want Donaldson on their respective team; and this most certainly includes the Jays. I have no doubt in my mind that the Front Office would love to bring Donaldson back and be part of this team for the foreseeable future. But that's not what is at issue here. It's almost definitely true that the Jays want to have Donaldson long-term, but I don't think they're willing to pay him what he thinks he deserves in correlation. Remember, players will always always over-value themselves, and Donaldson is no exception. Just scroll up to my little write-up on Martinez and you won't need any further proof. There will always be a discrepancy between a player and management when it comes to terms, but that doesn't mean a deal cannot get done. The problem here - and this isn't one that should be ignored - is that most of the time the player's defense in wanting such a lucrative deal is by referencing what he has done. Management, on the other hand, wants to assess the player's value in what they believe he will do over the entirety of the deal.
Obviously, no one has a crystal ball, so no one can adequately predict the future and foresee how a player will perform. But when referencing players like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Joe Mauer, or Jason Heyward, it seems that - more than likely - long-term deals for "older" players don't tend to work out in a team's favor. So, if a long-term deal is to be given to such a player, it seems reasonable that the monetary value will be reduced as a result in order to prevent a stranglehold on the team's payroll in years to come.
It is all about sharing risk, which means it's all about finding a compromise As much as Blue Jays fans may not want to admit it, signing Donaldson to a long-term lucrative deal just doesn't make much business sense. It's unreasonable to conclude that, should the Jays offer him a 5 year deal at around $150MM-$175MM, that it won't come back to bite them. Chances are, it will. We don't want to be that team that can't make a playoff run because we have a bad contract on the books. Hell, people are already annoyed with Tulowitzki and his inability to stay healthy, while forgetting that he is on the books until at least 2021 ($20MM n 2018, $20MM in 2019, and $14MM in 2020), at which point the club could (and probably will) exercise its option. Moreover, let's not forget that Donaldson plays a physically demanding position at third base, and on turf to boot (which does put more stress on a player's body than natural grass). All of these considerations must be made when assessing Donaldson's value and what is considered a fair deal to extend. It sucks, but that's business. That's the breaks. I mean, really ask yourself this - do you have a good reason to believe Donaldson will defy Father Time? Or do you just really want to think he will?
But let's not forget that Ross Atkins has said that the team has a number that they are willing to sign Donaldson to in his appearance during Pitch Talks earlier this year.
If I were to completely guess on this, I'd like to say that it's very close, if not exactly the same, as the contract they were willing to give (and did offer) Edwin Encarnacion: 4 years at $80MM with a possible fifth year option valued at $20MM - bringing it to a possible $100MM contract.
Keep in mind, Edwin was 33 when the contract was offered to him by the Jays, and was just about to turn 34 the following month. If they were willing to potentially pay $100MM for Edwin, there's no reason to believe that they wouldn't be willing to do the same for Donaldson, at minimum.
IF this is the number that the Jays are willing to sign Donaldson to, or IF it is in the ball-park (give or take another $20MM in total value), I'm taking a very very long look at it if I was Donaldson. Again, with how the free agent market played out this off-season, Donaldson is certainly gambling as there's more reason to think it'll be similar to how it is than it changing in his favor. Especially with the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado hitting the open market at the same time; both of which will almost certainly get a better deal than Donaldson, as they have youth on their side (oh, and a crazy amount of talent, too - but so does Donaldson). Both of these players should not be seen a comparative bar that should be set for Donaldson when it becomes his turn to make contract demands. The respective situations just aren't analogous and I fear this may be what he's doing.
But I digress...
It's important to note that in no way do I want to make it seem that I don't want the Jays to sign Donaldson. I do. I really want them to, but I also want them to be smart about it. I also don't want to come across as though I feel Donaldson is somehow declining and won't produce at a high level in the near-term. Neither of which are true, as I think Donaldson is still one of the best players in baseball today.
Yet, it's super easy for fans to say that Rogers is cheap and they shouldn't care about money when they have such a large amount of it (putting it lightly here). I guess I'm at the point in my baseball fanhood that I appreciate extending the optics towards the subsequent years, as well as appreciate the notion that a team doesn't want to put themselves in a corner when committing such a lucrative deal to a single player. Doing so, in most cases (and historically for the Jays) inhibits their ability to acquire the necessary pieces to build a strong team (Vernon Wells, anyone?). Remember, both Atkins and Shapiro have been preaching that they want to build a consistent sustainable winner in Toronto ever since they first arrived. I'm not sure how they will be able to do this, successfully, while at the same time committing a huge contract to Donaldson. However, offering a contract similar to the one they offered Edwin certainly would not prevent them from achieving the aforementioned goal. At some point, you have to trust your gut, even if it means disappointing a large portion of the fans. It's a sad reality, but when it comes to business, it's common and necessary. At this end, both parties should compromise if both are serious about extending their business relationship further.
Thus, hopefully both parties can find some common ground. I don't at all believe that Donaldson is shutting down contract talks, no matter how adamant he seems. I mean, hypothetically, if the Jays come out and offered him a $200MM contract over 10 years (this will never happen, by the way), do you really think he'll give them the "you had your chance!!" treatment? No way. Who knows? Maybe cooler heads will prevail and the two parts can "get there." I sincerely hope they do and sincerely hope it's a fair deal for both parties (i.e. the Edwin deal).
Time will tell.
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