By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
Now that the season is over, the crew at Blue Jays from Away will take a look at the Blue Jays one by one and review how each player’s season went, whether he met expectations (or not) and look at how he fits into (what we think of) the Blue Jays’ plans going forward.
Josh Donaldson is in the news and rumours sections of many websites and newspapers these days. Will the Jays trade Donaldson? Will the Jays buy out some of his free agent years with a contract extension? Will he go to arbitration, stick around for one more year and then leave as a free agent? While time will tell for all of these questions, there's one thing that is definitely not in doubt: Donaldson had another fantastic season in 2017 despite the injuries that kept him to fewer games than he's ever played as a Blue Jay.
Donaldson's season got off to a rocky start as he was carefully handled through a calf injury during spring training, playing only eight games (hitting .250/.455/.500) and, after a rough couple of weeks to start the season (physically, not statistically: he was hitting .310/.429/.586 with a pair of home runs in nine games), he was placed on the DL on April 15, only to be reactivated more than a month later, returning to action on May 26.
Donaldson's numbers through the end of May and June were very solid (.248/.354/.477, seven doubles and six home runs in 29 games) but he flagged in July, limping into the All-Star Break with a 1-for-26 run and seeing his average slide to .236 at its lowest point. He only hit three home runs in July and fans were worried about the health of this star who has recently turned 32.
But August was a new ballgame as Donaldson came into the month with a two-hit game (hitting a double and a home run) and followed that with another two-hit game and he went on to mash in August, hitting for a huge slugging percentage of .711 with a .289 batting average and .421 OBP. Did I say it was a huge month for Donaldson? He proved that he was swinging the bat well with 12 home runs and five doubles in August.
While he didn't slug .711 again in September, he did mash for a .315/.396/.685 slash line, adding 10 more home runs for a genuinely smoking second half.
Donaldson finished with some pretty impressive numbers on the season, hitting .270/.385/.559 with 33 home runs and 21 doubles, putting up 5.0 WAR (according to Fangraphs) in just 113 games and 496 plate appearances. That performance is pretty much at par with his MVP season of 2015 and excellent run in 2016. He had a wRC+ of 149 (creating runs at 49% higher than the league average) while in 2015 he had a 154 wRC+ and had a 155 wRC+ in 2016.
Was there some decline in Donaldson's game? Sure. One area for concern was Donaldson's increasing strikeout rate. While he's still an elite run producer, he did see his strikeout rate jump from 18.7% in 2015 and 17.0% in 2016 to 22.4% in 2017. That's a big jump and a cause to wonder if it's part of a trend or, without some other high-strikeout players around him (a.k.a., Jose Bautista), that number might regress to his career numbers which have traditionally been below 20%.
Defensively, there seems to be some regression too. Fangraphs had him worth a negligible 0.1 rating defensively, down from 10.7 in his MVP year and just three defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2017, down from 20 in 2014 with the A's and 11 in 2015 with the Jays. He also had a negative UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) for the first time in his career. Is Donaldson's defensive decline inevitable or is it a result of nagging injuries?
Which brings us to the question of whether his nagging injuries are part of an inevitable decline themselves and will ultimately impact on his ability to play above average defense at third base. If Donaldson can't play third base anymore, who does? Where does Donaldson go?
These are the biggest questions facing the Blue Jays' organization heading into 2018. What do you do with Donaldson? With Justin Smoak breaking out last year and with Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce also slated for time at first base and DH, Donaldson is stuck at third base and can't be rotated through those positions regularly. If you extend him beyond three years, then I think you're ending up paying too much for him in his age 35 through 37 seasons but will he take a three-year extension? Do you let him go to free agency or trade him?
More than anything else, how the front office answers these questions will determine how the Blue Jays look in the coming years.
Donaldson is currently without a contract and has one more year of arbitration left before he is eligible to become a free agent. After making $17 million in the last year of his contract in 2017, Donaldson is poised to break the $20 million mark in 2018 as MLB Trade Rumors predicts that he would get $20.7 million in arbitration.
2017 Regular Season Grades
Jay Blue: A
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