It’s quickly beginning to look like the Toronto Blue Jays will soon be in search of The Franchise Guy once again.
With the departure of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland and rumors beginning to swirl connecting Jose Bautista to the Minnesota Twins, the Jays will be losing a significant portion of their lineup to free agency. But even if one — or both — of them had returned, the problem remains fundamentally the same: looking forward into the future, the Jays don’t really have a standout young position player ready to carry the team forward where Encarnacion and Bautista left off.
We’re talking about a player in the mold of Francisco Lindor in Cleveland, or Mookie Betts in Boston, or Jose Altuve in Houston — a guy who adds value in all aspects of the game, is a linchpin bat the rest of the roster can be built around and is under team control for the foreseeable future (Betts and Lindor are still on their entry deals, while Altuve signed a very team-friendly extension a few years back that will likely keep him in Houston through the 2019 season).
Other examples of The Franchise Guy in MLB would be Kris Bryant on the Cubs or Corey Seager on the Dodgers; Mike Trout, obviously, on the Angels, and perhaps, in a year or two, Clint Frazier or Gary Sanchez on the New York Yankees. Or if the AL East is really unlucky, Clint Frazier and Gary Sanchez on the Yankees.
The Blue Jays have Josh Donaldson, of course, but Donaldson not only just turned 31 years old in December, but he will be hitting free agency after the 2018 season. That’s going to be his one and only chance at a big contract, the sort of $160-$180 million monster that guys like Chris Davis and the like dream on, and Donaldson’s a better player than Davis is. He might get that deal from the Blue Jays…but Mark Shapiro isn’t the kind of executive that goes out and commits hundreds of millions of dollars to a guy who might be entering his decline just out of loyalty and past production. If he was, Encarnacion would still be a Blue Jay, and Kendrys Morales would not.
So Donaldson gets lumped in with players like Manny Machado of the Orioles and Bryce Harper of the Nationals — excellent, amazing players at the height of their value that will likely be playing elsewhere in a couple years, and are thus hard to build a team around without a major financial commitment. He’s also a good seven years or so older than those guys, which is perhaps the one saving grace for the Jays if they want to retain his services — Machado, Harper and Donaldson hitting the market in the same winter is bound to upset all kinds of houses of cards, and Donaldson might find that after the Yankees and Dodgers (for example) get done bickering over Machado and Harper, there’s no $180-plus million contract out there for him.
Then there’s the idea that the Blue Jays don’t need a signature Franchise Guy to play baseball with sustained success, and there’s something to that. The Kansas City Royals didn’t have one stand out essential superstar position player in their most recent contention window — the closest they came was Alex Gordon, who is a respectable player, but “the best defensive left fielder in baseball” is a rather niche accomplishment and 2011 was his only truly dominant offensive year — and Blue Jays fans would be thrilled if the Jays could turn their current roster into two World Series appearances and a World Series win before having to change up the roster.
But all in all, if a team has a choice, it’s better to have one or two extremely effective superstars who perform year in and year out — maximizing production out of their lineup spots — so that the front office can busy itself tinkering with the supporting cast and much more expensive pitching staff. Being the Royals is nice, but you’d rather be the San Francisco Giants with Buster Posey behind the plate.
Acquiring guys like that is hard, obviously, and usually done only with a top 5 or so overall pick — or at the very least a first rounder. There aren’t many guys who fit the bill in the Jays organization, but the most alluring is easily Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., the son of the soon-to-be-Hall of Fame slugger and bad ball gourmand who also made his name playing for a Canadian team in his youth. Guerrero, Jr.’s not even 18 yet, which means he’s got a long, long way to go before any of this pressure can reasonably be put on his shoulders — making the majors by 2020 is already a pretty optimistic timeline for his development, and it’s probably more reasonable to expect him to arrive in mid-2021 if everything goes well.
Still, by 2019 it’ll be much clearer where the future lies for Josh Donaldson and the Jays: whether he’ll be departing for one of the richer American franchises, or if the Jays can retain his services and have him anchor the clubhouse and the lineup as he ages, giving way to the next great Jays superstar — be that Guerrero, Jr., or someone else.
And perhaps Shapiro will find a way to build a perennial contender with just signings like Kendrys Morales for the lineup and shrewd drafting, after all. But with only nine spots in the lineup, there’s a limit to how much you can spread out the productivity. Encarnacion and probably Bautista are gone; Donaldson’s probably leaving soon too. Someone else will eventually have to step up.