Why the Blue Jays Need to Be Careful About Extending Josh Donaldson

Now that it’s over, we’re all looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, and it’s a time we obsessive types focus undivided attention on considering what the process looks like for Toronto’s player personnel acquisition team. What are the questions Ross Atkins and his staff have to wrangle with as the attempt to follow through on the public commitment to be a fully invested contender next year?

In my view, the keystone decision revolves around the future of Josh Donaldson as a Toronto Blue Jay. Many of the things that may be discussed in the coming months really are not matters of much indecision. No, they are not going to trade Sanchez, Stroman, or Osuna. No, there’s not a strong argument for parting ways with Russ Martin. It’s pretty obvious that no one thinks you can move Tulo and so forth. There is some question of how much they will spend (though there’s no real possibility that it won’t go up some, if necessary to make the moves they wish to make) and, when the time comes they will certainly have to consider how that money is best invested in the projected payroll but the context within which that process occurs is informed by the decisions made regarding Donaldson.

So let’s dive into the thought processes which will inform that decision. We cannot, of course, know everything that Atkins and his team know. Health records for example are not publicly available but there are certain parameters we can identify as the framework within which any such decision would be made. What follows is the first of a two-part look at the Donaldson Decision. Today I’ll review some important historical data about player performance across the league, and how it relates to big-money salary commitments for hitters. Next time, I’ll put this information in the context of the unique consideration for both Donaldson and the Blue Jays this off-season.

To begin, these are the practical choice:

  1. Do nothing, go to arbitration and pay that salary and let him play out his contract and leave as a free agent after the 2018 season. (There’s a subset to this option wherein the team could trade Donaldson at the 2018 trade deadline);
  2. Attempt to sign a one year deal and failing that go to arbitration with an internal commitment to make every effort to sign him to a long term deal during or after the season. This is similar to No. 1, differing only in that the former option basically concedes that the nature of the long-term contract is not something the team is willing to do;
  3. Attempt to sign a long term contract this coming off season that avoids the possibility of bidding against other teams on the open market;
  4. Trade him this off-season in an acknowledgement that they do not see signing a long term deal as a better use of resources than  the young players they might receive in a trade.

What we know so far is that other teams are interested in the former MVP, the Blue Jays have no public desire to trade him, and Donaldson himself is itching to spend more of his career in Toronto. With all that said, words only mean so much and we’ve certainly seen this front office have to change their mind on future plans before.

Either way, until we have information that tells us otherwise, the thought process moves from ‘should the Jays sign Donaldson’ to considering what sort of deal is possible and how they can reconcile the best terms. For their part, Donaldson’s reps do not have the strongest hand to play this winter in that JD will reach free agency for the first time at the end of his age 32 season.  He’s already making $17 million this year and it seems a given that they’d ask for an AAV in the $20 mil+ neighborhood. Historically, the most lucrative total value contracts given to hitters are not signed at such a late age. While the mega-deals for hitters can sometimes go to 10 years, or around age 40 depending on when they are signed, in Josh’s case the maximum deal they could even ask for in their wildest dreams would be one that covered his age 32-40 seasons (nine years) if he signed it this winter, or 33-40 if he signed it in free agency. But it’s valid to question whether any team would make such a deal.

The aging curve is such an increasingly prominent factor in this decision, and something that team management across baseball is increasingly conscience of, so let’s first consider what that looks like in terms of production for MLB players who’re in the latter half of their 30’s.

In the last 10 complete  MLB seasons, a mere three players have played their age 40 season, and accumulated a fWAR total of at least +1, David Ortiz (4.5) and Ichiro Suzuki (1.6) last year, and Chipper Jones in 2012. Five times in that decade a 39 year old accomplish this, and 13 times a 38 year old did so. Of those 18 combined seasons, only 11 of them were worth more than two fWAR, only one was worth as much as three. Here are the top 10 seasons of fWAR for players older than 37 in the last decade:

1. David Ortiz – 4.5 – 2016 – age 40
2. Adrian Beltre – 3.1 – 2017 – 38
3. David Ortiz – 2.9 – 2015 – 39
4. Alex Rodriguez – 2.7 – 2015 – 39
5. Derrick Jeter – 2.6 – 2012 – 38
5. Ichero Suzuki – 2.6 – 2012 – 38
7. Chipper Jones – 2.5 – 2010 -38
8. Chipper Jones – 2.4- 2012 – 40
10. Carlos Beltran – 2.3 – 2016 – 39
10. David Ortiz – 2.3 – 2014 – 38

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that exactly TWO players in a decade appears in this group more than once. David Ortiz managed to accumulate 9.7 fWAR from 38-40. Chipper Jones had 6.8, and Ichiro 5.1. Only seven players in all  – two of which are still active and not yet 40 – have more than 3 fWAR total during that portion of their career over the last decade. No other active player is on the cusp of joining that group.
But that’s not all. What about age 37? There are a paltry five seasons in the last decade by an age 37 player who accumulated at least 3 fWAR. There are twice as many reaching that benchmark at age 36. In sum total, only seven times in 10 years did a player reach 3 fWAR after his age 36 season, and two player (Ortiz and Beltre) who did so twice.

So, from a management point of view, your choices are to avoid contracts that go beyond age 36 altogether, to pay the player presuming his value will be at best 2-3 WAR beyond that point (and even this level of accomplishment would place him among the best hitters of his generation) or accept that you are going to be dramatically underwater on the contract in the last years as the Angels are with Albert Pujols (you’ll hear his name again later). So let’s just go ahead and assume that the front office is not going to be guilty of signing Donaldson to any deal much, if any, beyond that age.

Over the decade in question, 25 players accumulated at least 2 fWAR at age 36, and  10 of those reached three, ranging as high as Chipper Jones hitting 7.1 in 2008. There were also 12 seasons that fell between 2.1 and 2.9. So while it is statistically more probable your highly paid player will at least be productive at age 36, it is still fairly rare — less than one case per year on average of 3.0 or better — for a player this age to be highly productive.  I won’t do such an extensive examination of the age 32-35 player because, frankly, if you’re not willing to pay the man over the next four years then just go ahead and trade him and be done with it.

It is reasonable then to conclude that, if you are looking at the choices as a strictly on-field value for the dollar equation, that Atkins can  look out over the next decade and assume that the first three years of the potential deal would be the place where he’d have a reasonable expectation of getting value, the following three would represent a declining asset, and anything beyond that untenable.  Remember, we are already discussing a deal that’s going to top $20 million a year on average so just playing enough to come up with, say, 1.5 WAR is still not getting full value out of your investment.

Let me interrupt myself a moment here to say that this is where such articles typically cite the Fangraphs formula for a dollar valuation per WAR, but I can’t really find examples of a player actually getting paid anything close to what that model dictates on the high end of the salary spectrum so I’m not going to invoke those figures.

So how have previous such contracts worked out? I looked at the most expensive contracts for hitters in MLB history, I really don’t think the money being given to SP recently is particularly makes a particularly relevant comparison, then I filtered out contracts signed at age 29 or younger, contracts that were less than four years in length or ended before age 35, and those without either at least one year at 35 or older that pays more than $20 million or an AAV more than $20 million. That leaves only 15 contracts, but among those nine of the players which such contracts have not yet played their age 35 season. The other six are:

Alex Rodriguez —under contract for $156 million due from age 35 season onward. He amassed 8.1 fWAR total over that period. Remember, this is a Hall of Fame caliber player. He played 481 major league games spread over five seasons to accomplish that, or basically 3 seasons worth for an average of 2.7 fWAR per 162.

Albert Pujols — now 37, Pujols calls for $189 million over that span, at this point he’s totaled 0.7 fWAR over the age 35-37 portion of his contract during which he’s made $75m. He’s owed $114m still over the next four seasons.

Adrian Gonzalez — is in his age 35 season, and is due a combined $44.75 million this year and next. He’s played 49 games this year and accumulated -1.1 fWAR.

Jayson Werth — committed to $83 million combined for his age 35-38 seasons and as he hits free agency off an injury plagues year, his four year total is 5.4 fWAR over the period in question. Five of that came in his age 35 season however.

Ryan Howard — This notoriously horrible decision paid Howard a total of $50 million for his age 35-36 seasons. He accumulated -1.3 fWAR over those years.

Jason Giambi — Made $66.8 million during age 35-37 seasons, and accumulated 4.1 fWAR.

That’s…ugly. A-Rod , had he crammed that playing time into three contract seasons, would have produced the best results, however, it took five seasons in order for him to accumulate that total; that averages out to a mere 1.6 per year and it’s still the best mark here. Cautionary tales on every hand. So as the Blue Jays look ahead, they are going to have to face the question of how many decline years they are willing to pay for and at what price to keep Donaldson on the team for another three to four (hopefully productive) seasons in order to communicate to the fans that they are serious about winning.

In my opinion this reality increases the urgency of not going the one-year route this winter. I’ll detail why next time.

Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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