"We're trying to win," Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com in late December. "And I can't imagine our team being better without Josh Donaldson."
Neither can I, if you're just talking about 2018. And it sure is refreshing, in this era of process and tanking, to hear a general manager and team talking about trying to win.
The problem is if trying to win in 2018 means turning down quality offers for a 32-year-old third baseman on the verge of free agency, it might make trying to win in 2019 and beyond a tough task. For a team that lost 86 games in 2017 and has at least two more talented teams to compete with in the American League East, that's just not a good trade-off.
This isn't about trying to lose. It's not about tearing the team apart and playing for four or five years down the line. It's about recognizing reality and taking advantage of what could be a real opportunity.
The free-agent market this winter just isn't that strong. It's not moving fast, either, as you may have heard. Teams haven't yet been willing to commit huge dollars and big years to players who may not be difference-makers.
Meanwhile, the Jays would be able to offer a guy who was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2015 and finished fourth in the voting in 2016. They could offer a guy who produced similar numbers in 2017, even as he was limited to 113 games by injuries.
A team trading for Donaldson wouldn't be taking on an albatross of a contract, either. He has one more season of arbitration eligibility—MLBTradeRumors.com estimated he'll get $20.7 million—and then he's a free agent. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals could trade for Donaldson with the idea of signing him to an extension, but his contract status shouldn't be a burden.
In fact, as USA Today's Bob Nightengale suggested on Twitter, the Cardinals would have a better chance of signing Donaldson than Manny Machado, another star third baseman who has been part of trade rumors over the last few months.
The Cardinals have been the team most often mentioned in Donaldson trade rumors, but Jon Heyman of FanRag reported on Twitter that five teams have shown interest and three have been "persistent." Then again, Heyman also said the Blue Jays "have no intention to trade [Donaldson] whatsoever."
It's easy to believe that, and not just because Atkins has said it with some regularity. The better proof is what the Jays have already done, most significantly in not seriously considering a Donaldson deal last summer. He was a year-and-a-half from free agency then, and the Jays were in last place, but they made it clear he wasn't moving.
The key, according to what Blue Jays executives told their counterparts with other teams, wasn't the Jays' position in the American League East standings. It wasn't the wins and losses, it was the number of tickets the Blue Jays were selling. They were a close second to the New York Yankees atop the AL attendance standings (with 39,554 a game), and they've drawn three million for two straight years—the first two times since the back-to-back championship seasons of 1992-93.
The Blue Jays know from experience how easily and how quickly a team can lose its fan base. They know how hard they worked to build that base back.
Trading for Donaldson in November 2014 helped bring the fans back. Understandably, those fans don't want to see the Blue Jays take a step back. They'd rather see them add, perhaps by signing a free agent like Lorenzo Cain or trading for a young star like Christian Yelich.
Atkins acknowledged interest in Yelich in an interview on Toronto's Prime Time Sports (via Sportsnet.ca).
"We'll do what we can," he said. "We are definitely going to do everything we can to consider how we can make our team better."
The Jays GM also acknowledged 28 other teams probably had some interest in trading for Yelich. He didn't say, but could have, that many of those teams would have more top prospects to offer than the Blue Jays do. Former GM Alex Anthopoulos traded away a good part of his farm system in pursuit of a championship.
The championship hasn't come, at least not yet, but Anthopoulos' deals helped revitalize the franchise. Now the Blue Jays need another big move. They need to turn Josh Donaldson into the players who take them into a better future.
And they need to do it this winter.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a National Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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