Day of decision on Donaldson is coming
The Blue Jays could afford to sign Josh Donaldson to a multi-year contract right now, but haven’t. Why not? The bottom line is they still aren’t sure if they’re even fringy contenders. In a slow-moving marketplace with little happening in trades or free agency, the Jays still need a starting pitcher, one productive outfielder who can also defend and someone to bat at the top of the batting order ahead of Donaldson.
The club has a projected opening day payroll at the moment of just under $148.5 million (U.S.), which is $15 million less than a year ago on opening day. And following the 2018 season, five players, including Donaldson, will be eligible for free agency, taking more than $54 million off the major-league payroll.
Yet the Jays have not moved forward in a sincere effort to extend the hard-hitting face of the franchise. They may be waiting in case a trade offer for Donaldson, likely from the Cardinals, comes along to knock their socks off. They may be waiting for someone else to set the salary bar for players of similar talent, guys like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, members of the same 2019 free-agent class. They may be waiting to see if contending against the powerful Yankees and ambitious Red Sox in 2018-19 is a realistic goal.
If they believe they can compete in the AL East, then Jays president Mark Shapiro and his staff they will keep riding the financial wave of fan support in terms of viewership, ticket sales and Jays gear across the country. And that should include a concerted effort to extend the contract of their most valuable player.
If, instead, Shapiro tells ownership that he believes the Jays are outflanked in the East, the club will likely take a step back and build from within for a sustainable winning future, sacrificing any hope for the next two seasons until the caval- ry led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives. Time is running out for 2018, with just 36 days until pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla. You will know that surrender is the case if the Jays enter the season with Donaldson on a one-year deal via arbitration.
Even assuming that Donaldson, the former AL MVP, breaks through the $20-million mark in arbitration on a one-year contract as he careens towards free agency, the Jays’ current 25-man payroll of nine guaranteed contracts, nine contracts eligible for arbitration and the rest under club control is manageable.
The top five Blue Jays payrolls over their 41years have been paid out in the last five consecutive seasons. The 2013 season was the first aggressive attempt by former GM Alex Anthopoulos to spend money and buy an instant winner, and the Jays crashed through the $100-million plateau for the first time.
Since that time, according to the respected website Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Jays payroll has ranged from $119.3 million to last year’s $163.4M. They’ve reached the post-season twice while averaging 83 wins over the five-year stretch.
So assuming Rogers ownership has the financial wherewithal to get a deal done, what would it take to extend Donaldson and keep the Bringer of Rain in blue?
The Donaldson floor, in terms of average annual value, should be set at $25-million per year. In MLB history, according to Cot’s, there have been 17 contracts averaging $25-million-plus — nine to starting pitchers and eight to position players, ranging in length from one year ($28M) to the Yankees’ Roger Clemens in 2007 to 13 years ($25M per) for Giancarlo Stanton, then with the Marlins, in 2015.
The problem with Donaldson, and what will surely be a sticking point in negotiations, is that he was a late bloomer, a converted catcher who will be 33 when he reaches free agency.
There are four prior contracts with an annual value of $25M awarded to position players who were at least 32 years old. Josh Hamilton (Angels) and Ryan Howard (Phillies) received five-year, $125M deals. They were both disastrous for their teams. The 10-year, $275M deal the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez at age 33 was always ridiculous, and the Tigers’ eight-year deal to 33-yearold Miguel Cabrera, averaging $31M, has been a mixed bag and has five years remaining.
The one megacontract that seems to make the most sense, an example of terms to offer Donaldson, is the Mets’ deal with Yoenis Cespedes. The Cuban outfielder did not make his MLB debut until he was 26 years old and signed his big contract in 2017. He had earned $25 million in 2016 with the Mets, then opted out and re-signed at four years, $110million, an average of $27.5M per season.
For Donaldson’s Jays arbitration contract, an MLB Trade Rumors estimate of $20.7 million for 2018 could simply be negotiated as the front end of a further four-year extension for Cespedes-type numbers, carrying Donaldson through the 2022 season.
If the third baseman does remain with the Jays, Toronto will be the only AL team with three position players earning more than $20 million. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and catcher Russ Martin are the others. The Yankees (Stanton and Jacoby Ellsbury) and the Angels (Mike Trout and Albert Pujols) have two apiece.
But the Jays are saving money in other areas. The starting rotation, which for now includes swingman Joe Biagini, will cost a little more than $38 million, while the bullpen, including Roberto Osuna, statistically one of the best closers in baseball, will cost about $8M for the top eight pitchers.
If the Jays want to offer a contract extension worthy of Donaldson’s consideration, they are capable of doing it, given the payroll that will be coming off the books over the next two years. They could even afford to sign someone like Lorenzo Cain right now. But does Jays ownership really believe it can contend in the next two to three seasons or will it try to trick fans into staying on board with a mediocre outfield and an incomplete rotation while waiting for the next generation?