The thought long was that Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson would be a major trade chip for the team if things went awry in 2018. While the Toronto organization is well into a sell-off, however, Donaldson remains. That’s due largely to the fact that he hasn’t played since the end of May, with a setback in his rehab from a calf injury keeping him on the shelf through the non-waiver trade deadline.
Donaldson has “made a ton of progress” of late, per GM Ross Atkins (via Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith, on Twitter), so he seems likely to feature heavily in August trade talks. Indeed, the Jays have already had plenty of talks involving the star third baseman, Atkins also noted (via Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, on Twitter). Of course, we’re still talking about a player who was perhaps the best in all of baseball (non-Trout division) over the prior three seasons. If he can get back to full health, Donaldson could be a difference-maker down the stretch and into the postseason for the right organization.
Given the complications of dealmaking in August, though, how might all this play out?
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There are innumerable variables at play here. Donaldson will need not only to get healthy — he also dealt with significant shoulder problems earlier in the year — but restore his performance in order to bring back real value. Through 159 plate appearances on the season, he was hitting a respectable .234/.333/.423 while playing average defense, levels at which he’s a quality but hardly world-beating performer.
Before organizations considering Donaldson can get a look, though, they may first face a decision on whether to roll the dice on claiming him. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire situation for the former AL MVP.
Since he has already been on the disabled list for sixty days, Donaldson can be placed on waivers once he’s ready to play on a rehab assignment. At that point, which may come sooner than later, the pending free agent will be expensive (around $7MM of his $23MM salary remains to be paid as of this writing) and plenty risky. Rival teams will know that he’s at least healthy enough to get back on the field, but won’t be sure he’s over the injury and up to full speed (let alone that he’s in top form).
At first glance, the presumption would be that non-contenders wouldn’t have any reason to place a claim on such a player. Then again, as the Phillies showed last year, it may be unwise to assume that a creative front office won’t see an angle here.
It’s important to note that Donaldson will be available first to American League teams, in reverse order of record at the time the request for waivers is submitted. If none of the non-contenders intercede, the Indians are quite likely to have the first crack at him. The Cleveland organization presently sits 3.5 games behind the Mariners and A’s (the club that memorably dealt Donaldson to Toronto). As it turns out, the Indians could certainly still stand to add a major piece to their lineup and could easily slot Donaldson in at third base while bumping star Jose Ramirez to second and pushing Jason Kipnis into a utility role.
Of course, the remaining salary is a hefty sum — particularly for the Indians — in light of the multiple elements of uncertainty here. If the Cleveland org passes, then the rest of the American League contenders could win the claim instead, or Donaldson could be claimed by an organization on the NL side (who’ll also be ordered from worst to best in priority).
Winning a revocable August claim, of course, doesn’t mean that a team gets the player. Rather, it only gives the claiming organization a chance to work out a deal with the team that sought waivers, which has the election of pulling the player back (after which point only irrevocable waivers may be sought), working out a trade, or simply letting him go for free.
In this case, despite Donaldson’s struggles and injury questions, the Jays could well hold out for a real return. The organization won’t likely be desperate to dump the salary. And it may view a qualifying offer at season’s end as a reasonable alternative to a deal. After all, Donaldson would represent a nice risk even at the hefty single-season QO rate (likely in the $18MM range this offseason). And if he declines the Jays would stand to pick up some draft compensation in a year in which they’ll have some decent draft capital to work with.
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Supposing that Donaldson does end up passing through waivers unclaimed, we’ll end up watching his rehab and eventual return quite closely. If that occurs, the Jays will be able to auction the star third bagger off to the highest bidder at the end of the month. While it was quite a different situation in many respects, the Justin Verlander trade last August shows that it’s still possible to get notable returns in August. Donaldson would be a pure rental asset who lacks no-trade protection, so he’d be much simpler to market than was Verlander.
The optimal outcome from the Blue Jays’ perspective is for Donaldson to clear waivers, return to action, put up vintage JD output for a few weeks, and then draw huge interest from a variety of contenders at the end of the month. That’s plausible, though by no means guaranteed.