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Josh Donaldson never seemed the sort who was terribly interested in money.

Most players understandably are. Despite best efforts, they can’t help but telegraph that every once in a while. They use coded phrases – “I know what I’m worth” or “I’ve seen what’s out there” – in order not to offend the average fan by appearing covetous.

Donaldson didn’t do that in Toronto. In baseball economic terms, he was a good soldier – never complained, never agitated in public for more. He gave off the contented feeling of someone who had figured out that a single year of an established star’s salary is all you require for a lifetime of security.

That’s good news for him because Donaldson got this part of the game all wrong. As a result, he’s probably given up US$100-million or more.

That’s not all Donaldson’s fault. A system that used to work in favour of people like him no longer does. If life is timing, Donaldson’s spent the past few years staring at a broken watch.

This week, the former Blue Jay signed a one-year US$23-million contract with the Atlanta Braves. Three years ago, Donaldson was a US$150-million player, but couldn’t make that deal at the time.

The no-longer-applicable wisdom here is that Donaldson can treat next season as an audition. Re-establish his MVP bona fides and then secure the big money contract. The problem is Donaldson will be 34 years old when the 2020 season begins.

The rest of the world is extending youth – 50 is the new 40 and so on. Baseball, and sports in general, is headed the other way. Thirty-four is the new 44.

There are a lot of good tactical reasons for this, the best of them being human physiology. Unless it’s budgeting or rising early, none of us gets better at anything past age 35.

But this is also baseball figuring out that, as long as they never say the word out loud, austerity can work in its favour. Without bothering to discuss it with each other, teams have decided to quit spending on a certain sort of star – the too-well-established one.

The too-well-established star has been around so long, been so talked about and talked up, that people have grown a little tired of him. He cannot do the most important thing in the sports business – put people in seats. That’s where Donaldson’s at.

What people want now is the not-yet-established star (NYES). He is young and talented, but his real draw is promise. He’s still peaking, they tell us. As long as that’s true, people are fascinated. As soon as it isn’t – even if the peak he’s reached is remarkable – people begin to lose interest.

By that rule, the NYES is most bankable when he is newest on the scene. That’s when his value to the team – perhaps not in terms of results, but certainly in the marketing sense – is highest.

As wretched as they are, the Blue Jays still have four past all-stars on their roster. Yet their entire 2019 business plan is built around a teenager who’s never had a major-league at-bat.

Baseball limits the earning capacity of the NYES – three years of paying them whatever they feel like, followed by four years of arbitration.

Players are incentivized to trade some arb years for some cut-rate free-agent years.

Most of the best don’t because that would show that they don’t “believe” in themselves. (As if devastating ligament injuries or getting run over by a riding lawnmower is a function of self-actualization).

That compromise is bearable because a) the eventual money is potentially limitless and b) it’s coming to those who deserve it.

Well, less and less.

For every Bryce Harper – broke into the bigs at 19, was a star from the off – there are a half-dozen Donaldsons. Based on the new rules of austerity, by the time that latter sort of guy is ready for his payout, baseball has turned him into a supplementary player.

From a fiduciary perspective, it’s brilliant. Major League Baseball’s owners couldn’t bargain themselves a salary cap. So they’re creating a de facto one.

One wonders when the players’ union is going to figure this out. They’ve been complaining bitterly about imaginary collusion between clubs with regards to free agents, but that’s missing the point.

The MLBPA has helped create the Next Big Thing culture that has flipped the earning pyramid upside-down. It is highly unlikely that players such as Vlad Guerrero, Jr., Miami’s JT Realmuto or Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna, Jr. will ever be more valuable than they are right now, before they’ve really done much.

(Just look at how the Aaron Judge-from-two-years-ago stacks up against the current, very-well-established, already-getting-a-little-boring Aaron Judge.)

As long as baseball executives can keep the pipeline of Acunas, Realmutos and Guerreros flowing, there is no need to ever pay these players what they were worth when everyone wanted to get a look at them.

By the time they get there, the next generation is upon us. Seven years is simply too long, longer than the length of an average baseball career. MLB’s beancounters are in the midst of gaming a flawed system.

This should not be read as sympathy for Josh Donaldson. He’s made about US$60-million for swinging and missing two-thirds of the time. I do that for far, far, far less money.

Is it fair that a player who is objectively great is limited in his earning potential because he didn’t have the good sense to be great past his sell-by date? No more unfair than schlubs in advanced athletic middle age still raking in eight figures to be awful, as is still often the case.

A bit like Jose Bautista before him, Donaldson bet on himself and lost. It’s too late for him.

But if I was one of the younger comrades in the MLBPA, I’d be agitating for change now. Because once you see that the system has turned on you, it’s in your best interest to turn on the system.

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