On the night in November, 2014, when Josh Donaldson was moved to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for a few tackling dummies, one of his Oakland Athletics teammates gave the early verdict on the trade.
“This doesn’t make sense to me,” Josh Reddick said.
Because it didn’t. It remains the most one-sided exchange since the Louisiana Purchase.
Maybe that’s why Donaldson’s relationship with the Jays has ended in farce – it’s karma. Having been acquired for nothing, Donaldson was traded on Friday night for the same. According to multiple reports, the Cleveland Indians got him in a late-season fire sale.
When the obits are written for Donaldson’s time in Toronto, most of the focus will be on his quality as a player.
But his greater impact may have been conceptual. Trading for a Donaldson was a frontier. Once past it, the Jays briefly treated winning as a necessity rather than a possibility.
Buoyed by his coup, then general manager Alex Anthopoulos went all Brewster’s Millions with the team, launching into a spending spree. There was a dotted line from Donaldson to Troy Tulowitzki to David Price to the playoffs.
Those were good times. They seem very long ago.
The smart move for the organization would have been to get in and get out. Enjoy the playoff runs; admit that given the age of the team they were unsustainable; then leverage the fan capital the team had just earned to move on quickly.
Instead, the Jays new management turned the team into an insurance company – so risk-averse that its preferred way of doing things is doing nothing at all.
That poverty of ambition has reached its nadir with l’affaire Donaldson. It’s not unusual for a baseball team to turn an unaffordable star into an enemy as he heads out the door. It is highly unusual that it does so for no reason and gets zilch in return.
If there is a common theme in how all the players who pushed the Jays to the 2015 postseason leave this club, it is poorly concealed irritation. Price wandered off in a huff, as did Edwin Encarnacion. Jose Bautista was so beaten down by the end, he slunk off.
Tulowitzki hasn’t left, but he’s already gone – pushed out in front of the cameras every few months to dare the club to move him off his shortstop stump. (For US$20-million a year, he should be happy to play behind a concession stand.)
But it has never fully blown up on the Blue Jays, largely because most people have in the end been glad to escape.
Donaldson no longer seems inclined to play that game with the Jays.
At the end of last year, Blue Jays officials signalled that they had no intention of re-signing a player who was already disintegrating from the hips down to the long-term contract Donaldson wants.
This didn’t stop the team from issuing all sorts of impossible-to-pin-down, on-the-record comments that amounted to “Anything’s possible.” Donaldson’s mistake may have been believing the comments.
The optimal moment to trade Donaldson was last winter. He’d ended the season on a high note. He was still worth something then.
But the Jays stuck to their passive script – do no harm (also, do no good).
Donaldson showed up at spring training, got hurt, tried to play through it, hurt himself some more, recovered a little, then really pooched himself running the bases.
As auditions for a nine-figure free-agent deal go, this was knocking yourself out opening the backstage door.
Donaldson’s injury precluded them from trading him at the non-waiver deadline. As the second window narrowed to Friday night’s deadline, Donaldson began unsubtly trying to force his way out.
Last week, he asked that his locker in Toronto be cleared out and its contents returned to him. His transparently phony excuse – “… wanted to make sure I have everything I need …” – was just another layer to the message: get me out of here or I will do my best to embarrass you.
On Thursday, he went a step further.
“There’s a lot I can say about [friction with management], but I choose not to say anything about it now,” he told the Toronto Sun’s Rob Longley in Dunedin.
This was the smart play. A tantrum would have looked bad on Donaldson. (Maybe he learned that lesson from Bautista.)
A long, meaningful sigh looks bad on the Blue Jays instead. As a bonus, everyone’s primed for the hatchet job to come.
Now he’s gone to Ohio in exchange for hard feelings. That rids the Jays of their Donaldson-related PR problem, but doesn’t solve anything.
If he does nothing in the AL’s central division or the playoffs to come, it was still a botched job.
If he ever gets healthy (big if), it’s one that will tar this management group for as long as it remains in Canada.
If the Jays deserve any credit here, it is for the quiet ambition of the self-destruct mission. Most teams screw themselves by making bad trades. The Jays don’t want to make any trades, and somehow it turns out much worse. If ineffectiveness is an art, everyone in Toronto’s c-suites is a budding Picasso.
The bottom line is this – the Jays were gifted an MVP-calibre talent in his prime. They didn’t just waste his potential value; they so mismanaged his expectations that they’ve turned him into a saboteur. Now he gets to run around baseball for a few years telling everyone how terribly Toronto is run, and don’t even get him started on the taxes.
By next year, the Jays will finally have begun their overdue rebuild. That will require the co-operation of a next generation of players from within and, as yet, without the organization.
That new cohort will arrive not knowing much about the big leagues and/or the Blue Jays.
But they will be pretty sure of one thing – that everyone who leaves Toronto, even the city’s biggest baseball heroes, does so unhappily.