Last July, as the Toronto Blue Jays stumbled toward a sobering fourth-place finish in the American League East, president of baseball operations Mark Shapiro couldn’t envision a viable course correction that included getting rid of Josh Donaldson, even with the superstar third baseman ticketed for free agency following the 2018 campaign.
Toronto believed in Donaldson, for good reason, and had enough faith in his abilities and market value to not move him at last year’s trade deadline, or during the ensuing offseason, even though a trade could’ve helped expedite the youth movement the front office was furtively trying to cultivate.
Donaldson seemed to appreciate the vote of confidence. On the final day of the 2017 regular season, he told reporters he’d be “tickled pink” to work out a contract extension with Toronto, and that he’d expressed that sentiment to the front office.
How quickly things change.
As the 2018 season unfolded and the club’s misfortune metastasized – the Blue Jays’ remote playoff hopes disintegrated by the end of May, around the same time Donaldson landed on the disabled list with the calf injury that torpedoed his value (and continues to sideline him) – the relationship between the front office and its star third baseman soured to the point that, in the words of general manager Ross Atkins, shipping the three-time All-Star to Cleveland last week for a player to be named later was “the best thing for the organization.” Rather than an infusion of prospect capital – which seemed like the worst-case scenario in the spring – the Blue Jays will now receive Some Guy for Donaldson, whose cryptic remarks about the front office in the days leading up to Friday’s deal oozed with resentment. (“There’s a lot I can say about that, but I choose not to say anything about it right now,” he told Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun on Thursday after appearing in a rehab game with High-A Dunedin.)
Breaking up is hard to do. And baseball isn’t immune to that reality.
Atkins, for his part, was mostly diplomatic in his remarks after unloading Donaldson, lauding the 32-year-old as “an incredible player (who) will continue to be a great player.” Still, that a PTBNL (rumored to be 26-year-old right-hander Julian Merryweather, who’s currently recovering from Tommy John surgery) was considered the optimal return for his top trade asset, distressed as it was, suggests that extending Donaldson a qualifying offer of roughly $20 million at season’s end was a non-starter. The risk of him accepting it and staying in Toronto through 2019 – while mentoring Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and giving the organization another opportunity to trade him ahead of next year’s deadline should he rebuild his value – was apparently too great.
Unloading Donaldson – who won the American League MVP Award in his first year with the Blue Jays and was a primary catalyst for the franchise’s successive ALCS appearances in 2015 and ’16 – for pennies on the dollar would’ve been unthinkable back in February. Donaldson was coming off his third straight season of MVP-level production, having managed a .944 OPS (149 wRC+) with 33 home runs while amassing 5.1 WAR despite missing 49 games. From 2015-17, only Mike Trout was more valuable by WAR.
At the time, the Blue Jays figured the compensation pick coming their way once Donaldson turned down their qualifying offer at season’s end and signed elsewhere (for potentially nine figures) would be a sufficient return for their rain-bringing stud, especially if hanging onto him resulted in a wild-card berth. Another trip to the postseason would definitely make palatable the opportunity cost of not trading him for a boatload of prospects on July 31.
But as Donaldson’s market value tumbled with each passing day, week, and month on the disabled list, where he languished somewhat mysteriously until the Indians were forced to activate him Saturday, the Blue Jays recalibrated, with their calculations presumably influenced by the rift festering between their baseball operations department and the franchise’s latest icon.
Eventually, Toronto decided the compensation pick wasn’t worth the risk. Donaldson will now try to help Cleveland win a World Series, and then hit free agency unburdened by the specter of draft-pick compensation. The rebuilding Blue Jays will continue to keep their focus on 2019 and beyond. Both parties are moving on. Still, it’s a shame their marriage, which began so beautifully, ended this way.
The Sho goes on
Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way phenom who spent the last three months exclusively as a DH due to a sprain of his right ulnar collateral ligament, didn’t do much Sunday night at Minute Maid Park to assuage concerns over the health of his elbow.
In his first big-league start since June 6, the 24-year-old couldn’t sustain his velocity into the third inning. Ohtani topped out at 99 miles per hour in the first, but tossed a couple disconcerting 88-mph four-seamers two frames later and barely used his splitter, his bread-and-butter two-strike pitch. Moreover, he induced only four swinging strikes in 49 pitches (8.1 percent whiff rate) across 2 1/3 innings, over which he allowed two runs on two hits – including a George Springer solo shot – while issuing two walks and notching a pair of strikeouts.
He didn’t look right, and while some of that can be attributed to rust, each shaky start from here on out – especially when the stuff isn’t there – will conjure whispers of Tommy John surgery.
Following the game, Angels manager Mike Scioscia was quick to point out other potential reasons for the velocity dip, including back soreness and a comebacker that deflected off a finger on Ohtani’s throwing hand.
“(It was) not connected at all to the thing that he had with his elbow before,” Scosia told MLB.com’s Maria Guardado.
Ohtani downplayed concern over his elbow, too, but wasn’t as definitive as his manager.
“I can’t really say much at this point,” he said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I’ve got to see how my body reacts.”
Even if Ohtani’s elbow does blow out over the final month of the season, necessitating a UCL construction, the Angels would essentially be in the same position as if they’d sent Ohtani to visit Dr. Neal ElAttrache back in June. Regardless, he’d miss the entire 2019 season, so they didn’t cost themselves anything by choosing to start with a less invasive, less time-consuming treatment plan – platelet-rich plasma injections and rest. And Tommy John isn’t completely inevitable. Look at Masahiro Tanaka. He suffered a partially torn UCL as a rookie in 2014, opted against surgery, and has averaged 166 innings per season while managing a 115 ERA+ over the past four years. Ohtani’s elbow injury wasn’t quite as severe as Tanaka’s, either, so there’s reason to believe he won’t require surgery.
By opting for the non-surgical route, though, each Ohtani start will inspire equal parts excitement and anxiety for the foreseeable future.
Introduced in 1973 by late owner George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees’ needlessly oppressive “grooming policy,” which forbids all players, coaches, and male executives from rocking any facial hair other than a mustache (lol), needs to go. Forty-five years of facial-hair discrimination is enough. And, moreover, the policy is clearly affecting newcomer Andrew McCutchen, who was forced to ditch his beard after being traded to New York last week.
Since shaving (which, McCutchen feared, could’ve traumatized his son) ahead of his Yankees debut on Saturday, the former National League MVP has gone just 1-for-11 through three games while also getting hit by a pitch in the first two contests. Only once before in McCutchen’s 10-year career had he been plunked in consecutive games. Just saying.
Kemp is Klutch
Remember when the Los Angeles Dodgers re-acquired Matt Kemp – the overweight, overpaid, over-the-hill 33-year-old who was more than a half-decade removed from his last All-Star appearance – in December for the express purpose of unloading other bad contracts? Remember how Kemp was going to be designated for assignment before Opening Day?
Yeah, uh, Kemp currently leads all Dodgers position players in win probability added, and his late-game heroics this past weekend – he clobbered a go-ahead, three-run homer Friday against Arizona, and then walloped a walk-off, two-run double the following day – helped nudge Los Angeles back to the top of the National League West, albeit briefly. (Entering play Tuesday, the Dodgers sit a half-game behind the Colorado Rockies, who’ve won three straight games.)
Kemp, who will remain under contract through 2019, has already amassed more WAR this year than he did over the previous three seasons combined, as he bounced from the San Diego Padres to the Atlanta Braves. It really lends credence to the (facetious, but also seemingly plausible) theory that he’s only an effective player when wearing a Dodgers uniform.
Matt Kemp, 2006-18
|Braves||N/A (Negative WAR)||110||.278||.324||.482|
“The thing that hasn’t wavered is his focus and desire to win,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick. “We’ve had many conversations about whatever role or expectations I have for him. His only focus is to win baseball games.”
Good ol’ Grandy
Acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline, Curtis Granderson‘s first three games with his new club could not have been more on-brand. In six trips to the plate, Granderson – who made his debut Friday as a pinch-hitter, started the following day in right field, and then came off the bench again Monday – has walked three times, offering at just eight of the 32 pitches he’s seen.
(Courtesy: Baseball Savant)
Granderson, who posted a .342 OBP and a 12 percent walk rate in 104 games with the Blue Jays before getting traded, has been one the league’s most selective hitters all season – only 20 players with at least 350 plate appearances have swung at a lower percentage of pitches – but his take rate so far with Milwaukee would make even Joey Votto blush. It augurs well for the Brewers, who rank ninth and seventh in walk rate and OBP, respectively, in the National League.
New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom made history Tuesday night with his latest gem, allowing just one run over six superb innings against the Dodgers to become the first pitcher since 1910 – two years before Fenway Park opened – to make 25 consecutive starts in the same season with no more than three runs allowed. Only once this year has deGrom surrendered more than three runs in a game, and that was way back on April 10 at Marlins Park, in his third outing of the season, as the 30-year-old allowed four runs over six frames. Ironically, the Mets won.
Since then, deGrom, the presumptive National League Cy Young winner, hasn’t allowed multiple home runs in any of his 25 outings, and has reached double-digit strikeouts nine times. Consequently, his ERA sits at a microscopic 1.68 with four weeks to go in the regular season. That his 219 ERA+ is still a ways off from the Mets’ single-season franchise record reinforces just how incredible Dwight Gooden was in 1985, when the 20-year-old crafted a 1.53 ERA (229 ERA+) over 276 2/3 innings and tossed 16 complete games – including eight shutouts – in the process.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)