Josh Donaldson could win the American League Most Valuable Player Award on Thursday. But will he get a long-term contract offer from the Toronto Blue Jays this off-season?
Right now, it seems that the chances of the former could be better than the latter. Donaldson, who is expected to get more than $12 million in this his second year of salary arbitration, made $4.3 million in 2015 after losing an arbitration hearing with the Blue Jays. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2019, and those close to former general manager Alex Anthopoulos say the notion of a long-term deal with Donaldson was never given the slightest consideration during his first year with the team.
Donaldson is more than just an MVP candidate; he’s the type of dynamic offensive force around which this team can be built – should either or both of Jose Bautista orEdwin Encarnacion be gone following 2016 – certainly moreso than Troy Tulowitzki or Russell Martin. He’s also hugely popular – a big personality with just enough blue-collar in him to endear him to this fan-base.
The timing is interesting for Donaldson. He’s a late-bloomer (he turns 30 on Dec. 8) which might suggest parallels to Bautista and Encarnacion … except Bautista’s five-year, $65-million contract was signed with just one year left before free agency. Unless Donaldson were to give the Blue Jays some salary relief this year and back-load the contract, there is little to be saved in terms of his early arbitration years. The ATM has already started to spew. Also, to lock up Donaldson through, say, the early years of free agency would mean a six or seven-year deal. Anybody remember Vernon Wells’ seven-year, $126-million extension?
New Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro’s background with the Cleveland Indians would suggest he’d be a forward thinker in this area. After all, he saw first-hand as a member of the front office how his predecessor, John Hart, aggressively locked up players such as Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr. to long-term deals before they were eligible for salary arbitration. Hart’s approach (helped, it is true, by revenue from Jacobs Field) kept players such as Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel in Cleveland for almost a dozen years – and even Manny Ramirez hung in for the better part of seven. Not bad for a market that was never considered one of the game’s prized destinations.
And Shapiro signed off on several long-term deals in recent seasons as Indians president, such as six-year deals for Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber’s five-year pact.
But those recent Indians deals didn’t carry much of an initial financial kick; their first-year salary levels were relatively modest. How the Blue Jays handle Donaldson this off-season might tell us more about the long-term vision of Shapiro and Tony LaCava than anything they do in the free-agent market – and the process will be no less interesting.
HEY-WARD … HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT?
The flip side of Josh Donaldson is Jason Heyward, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who finds himself in the somewhat unique position of being a free agent at the age of 26. According to Sportsnet Stats guru Steve Fellin, these are the biggest deals since 1976 handed out to free agents at the age of 26 or 25:
• 2000 – Alex Rodriguez, 25, 10 years, $252 million (Texas Rangers)
• 2004 – Adrian Beltre, 25, five years, $64 million (Seattle Mariners)
• 1980 – Claudell Washington, 26, five years, $3.5 million (Yankees)
• 1977 – Goose Gossage, 26, six years, $2.5-million (Yankees)
• 1976 – Gary Matthews, 26, five years, $6 million (Atlanta Braves)
Heyward is the youngest of this year’s free agents by a mile – no surprise, given that in any listing of the Top 50 free agents this off-season, there are nine or maybe 10 under the age of 30. This is a product, in part, of the manner in which teams lock up their young core players. Heyward is not quite the impact power bat many dream on, but he makes decent contact (14th among all major league outfielders,) plays terrific defence and is an athlete. The type of player a certain team used to win the World Series in 2015, in other words. He’ll get eight to 10 years from somebody.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• As someone who cut their teeth in this business covering the CFL in Winnipeg and Calgary, wouldn’t cross the street to support the bad people who run the NFL and who still attends games as a paying customer, it pains me to see the league so bereft of offensive talent that a 40-year-old quarterback – Henry Burris – can be a finalist for Most Outstanding Player. Not to take anything away from Burris, but c’mon … is the talent level at the most important position in the game so thin that there is that little turnover? No wonder CFL games have become more and more difficult to watch …
• My friends at FanGraphs – one of whom, Kiley McDaniel, just joined the Atlanta Braves front office last month – always give me something to think about. Jeff Sullivan, one of their best, put forth an interesting argument last week that used WAR to put a spin on one of the game’s long-running debates: beyond the eye-test provided by the Kansas City Royals, just how important can an elite closer be to a team. Bottom line? Evidence exists that having a shutdown high-leverage reliever can be worth more wins than WAR would suggest. Read it and keep it in mind the next time you cavalierly dismiss the notion of taking one of Aaron Sanchez or Roberto Osuna and simply declaring them closers ahead of spring training, and let them go through spring accordingly.
• It was a long 15 seconds of fame for Ronda Rousey, but I guess we can lay to rest all that silliness about her place among the pantheon of athletes. Again: no sport that operates at the whim of one individual – in this case, Dana White – can maintain legitimacy forever, even if there is little if any critical media coverage of the organization. Mixed martial arts will eventually go back to the corner studio and split into its component parts and leave even less of an imprint on the sports landscape than professional wrestling, which at least understands there’s no reason to take itself seriously. It was some kind of run, Dana. But it’s over. Done.
Look: I get that Jose Bautista can do no wrong and I’m a big fan of the bat flip to begin with, but I’m sorry: when Bautista effectively compares the significance of his home run in Game 5 of the American League Division Series to the iconic shots of Carlton Fisk and Joe Carter – as he did in the much-discussed Players Tribune story – I’d suggest it’s time that he and everybody else move on before somebody writes or says something silly. Enough, already. It was a notable moment in a notable season … but it’s not going to be a staple of out of town videoboards like the other two homers. Sorry.
Jeff Blair is host of The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. He also appears frequently on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown.