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How the Blue Jays Can Fit a Josh Donaldson Extension into Their Payroll

As the new year arrives and Toronto fans, along with the great majority of other MLB fans, await the advent of their team making a significant move, I am conscious of the fact that many Jays fans are perhaps too pessimistic about what financial capabilities are available to Ross Atkins as he makes these impending decisions.

I’ve written before advocating for the re-signing of Josh Donaldson, and this winter It has been observed, including by me, that what the Jays do in relation to Donaldson is in many ways the axis around which Toronto’s medium term future revolves. This in turn provokes discussions of how much the Jays can afford and, indeed, whether or not they have the resources to take a chance on that sort of commitment to Donaldson. In terms of the level of risk there’s a great piece at Jays From The Couch (which covers the sort of intensive statistical support that I’m far too lazy and out of my depth to do) for why the risk level is certainly acceptable. In terms of the cost, I’m prepared to argue that they can indeed afford this, and much more, and that without shocking increases in payroll budgets. A look ahead at how the payroll obligations develop in the coming years will be informative.

For starters, of course, the foundation of this discussion is the pending 2018 payroll. At present, taking the arbitration estimates (which are typically quite accurate in the aggregate) from MLBTR as contract commitments for the purpose of this post, the Blue Jays have the following obligations:

  • $88.375 million in long term deals for eight players (including Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. who doesn’t project to make he opening day roster)
  • $46 million in arbitration projections for nine more
  • Around $5 million to fill out the roster with pre-arbitration players.

That’s a total of $139.375 million, more or less. Most observers in the media suggest that leaves the team with about $25 million, I’d suggest possibly up to $30 million, in money left to spend. But keep in mind, that projection already includes $20.7 million for Donaldson.

Without getting too deep into speculation, one might imagine trading for the $14.75 owed to Andrew McCutchen, or paying a similar amount for an impact free agent. Meanwhile the other half of the rest of the budget seems like it’ll go to the impact pitcher that Russ Atkins spoke of early in the off-season. For the purpose of this projection, however, I will refrain from assuming any new deal that goes beyond 2018 in order to keep this simple and clear.

As things currently stand, $54.75 million slides off the payroll after 2018. The increase in currently existing contract obligations is minimal, but six arbitration eligible players (assuming they keep Zeke in the fold, which I’d doubt) will require raises. Approximating arbitration salary projections similar to those in past years, I’d estimate that the 2019 payroll, without any new contracts, would hover just above $100 million. Which is to say, a team with something like $70 million or so to spend (assuming no cuts to payroll).

It gets even better in 2020. Russel Martin, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, and Zeke all have reached the end of their control and that’s over $40 million off the payroll right there. In addition, the obligation to Troy Tulowitski drops to $14 million for another six million dollars in savings. This roster projects out, at present, to just about $70 million, which leaves $100m in free spending. The only current player under contract for 2021 is Gurriel who’d make a mere 3.5 million that year. Additionally, three players who were surely highly paid in their final year of arbitration — Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and Roberto Osuna — have now reached free agency. Should the trio leave the Blue Jays, the team’s most highly paid player is set to be Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes each in their second year of arbitration. Obviously, such a roster is the stuff of Derek Jeter’s payroll dreams

2018: $139m allocated — Up to $30m available
2019: $101m allocated — Up to $70m available
2020: $71m allocated — Up to $100m available
2021: $25m allocated

Now you would rightly wonder about how the roster will be filled out. After all, none of us look forward to replacement level (or worse) players scattered over the diamond in Blue Jays uniforms. For background on this, you can see my guest post over at Bluebird Banter in which I discuss the potential impact prospect arrivals in the next few years. It’s a given that the top three prospects — Vlad, Bo, and Anthony Alford will slide into the lineup, Danny Jansen has a shot at succeeding Martin and Teoscar Hernandez would potentially fill a slot. Pitching prospects are more unpredictable but there are at least five well regarded starting pitchers who’ll likely spend a significant proportion of next year in the upper minors, and a strong depth of potential major league relievers.

I would not begin to argue that this youth will, on it’s own, be sufficient to save Blue Jays management from spending anything to augment the team, but I would contend it presents a solid foundation for significant additions. Consider a 2020 batting order in which Guerrero, Bichette, Alford, Hernandez and Jansen join Travis alongside Martin and Tulo. That’s potentially a lot of production for a small financial cost, freeing up cash for to deal with potential weaknesses.

Now, to get back to Donaldson. Suppose you’d need six years and $150m to get a deal done. Backload a bit and you could get a couple extra million in the first season and after that you have tremendous flexibility. A structure such as 18-22-25-30-30-25 is absolutely possible. With the right structure to minimize the first year one could even be bold enough to add another impact player and not sweat it.

In the end, the Blue Jays’ current window is closing. However, a soft reset descent necessarily entail a tear down of the payroll and an inability to compete. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the Blue Jays continue to remain competitive, both for baseball and business reasons. Unless ownership dictates dramatic payroll reductions, this is certainly a team that can add contracts on the fly without having to tolerate down years. So, ya know, let’s not cheap out on signing JD. If he walks away because he thinks he can get eight years and $350 million or more (i.e. something goofy given his age) then oh well. But don’t hesitate for anything that doesn’t guarantee more than six years or more than say $180 million. It shouldn’t keep the team from spending on other needs at all.

Lead Photo: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

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