When we heard that the Blue Jays were taking the reigning MVP, Josh Donaldson, to arbitration many were less than happy about it. When we heard that the difference between the two sides was only $450K many of us shouted at Shapiro and Atkins telling him to just give the man what he wants. It seemed crazy to get into an argument with a player of Donaldson's talent over such a small amount of money (at least small in the world of professional sports). Many would go a step further and argue that the Jays should sign Josh Donaldson to a long term deal to avoid needing to argue over contract numbers for the next few seasons. Many of us are scared to upset a guy like Donaldson means that in the future we will have to see him walk into free agency. These were the initial thoughts for many Blue Jays fans such as myself. But, maybe this is a fight worth taking on if you're Shapiro and Atkins.
First and foremost it appears that Shapiro and Atkins are trying to set a precedent. With a new front office they need to make a statement that they won't cave to players. It sounds weird but in a time of increasing salaries and team budgets you've got to put your foot down sometime. While Donaldson is easily worth the extra cash it's the idea that the Jays aren't willing to just pass out money. The Yankees made a practice of giving players tons of cash and this led to Derek Jeter demanding a huge contract in 2010. Sometimes teams need to show that they are still in charge. Even at risk of upsetting some top players. If guys in arbitration are allowed to dictate their own contracts the Jays could be looking at extra salaries that could be utilized elsewhere.
But why pick Donaldson to have this fight with?
Donaldson actually creates a highly unique scenario for the Jays in the arbitration talks. Donaldson has been top 10 in MVP voting each of the last three years. In most cases if a player does something like that in his first three years in the big league then it's easy to make a case for locking them up long term. But, most guys in that position aren't 30 years old. And most 30 year olds with Donaldson's resume don't have 3 years of arbitration left.
Donaldson was a late bloomer and even though he made his MLB debut in 2010 at the age of 24 he didn't become a regular until 2013 at the age of 27. What this means for the Blue Jays is that, unless they decide to get rid of him, Donaldson is going to be in a Blue Jays uniform through at least 2018. That means that no matter what the Jays get three more seasons out of Donaldson. This also means that Donaldson won't hit free agency for the first time until just before his age 33 season. This is the typical age that we start to see players regress, and given that Donaldson came up as a catcher there's more than a few reasons for the Jays front office to be nervous about signing him up long term. And, unless the contract were to extend past his arbitration years then it seems odd to pay the guy more than necessary. Especially when he's at the age that guys start to plateau.
It's hard to predict what the Jays will look like in 2019. With so much time between now and then there's no telling whether the team will be contenders or rebuilding. We do know that the only two players with current contracts through that time will be Martin and Tulowitzki at $20 million a piece. That would be the final year for Martin's contract and while Tulowitzki would have two years left and his salary drops to $14 million the following year. But we also know that the Jays have a wealth of players who would still be under team control at that time such as Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Dalton Pompey, Devon Travis, and Ryan Goins. This could end up being a strong core for the Jays to compete. The Jays could need the cash to extend bigger contracts to these players or test the market for final pieces to compete their winning team. The free agency market that year is set to be loaded with talent that is much younger than Donaldson.
This isn't to say that I don't love Donaldson or that in a few years the Jays shouldn't consider signing him up long term. I just don't believe that now is the right time to offer the long term extension. With Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion both set to be free agents at the end of the season the Jays can't afford to tie up more money right now than necessary. While the difference between the two sides isn't that much, this is a scenario where I agree with the new guys in the front office.