TORONTO — Josh Donaldson didn’t go too far out of his way to criticize the Blue Jays in his return to Toronto, but he made little effort to avoid doing so.
On Tuesday as the 2015 MVP took questions from reporters in his first game at Rogers Centre since the club traded him last August, it’s worth noting that he said all the right things.
He told the assembly how much he’d been looking forward to Tuesday’s game at Rogers Centre. He predicted a planned video tribute would get him emotional. He described Toronto as “one of the best places to play in all of baseball.” There was no shortage of bog-standard, boilerplate stuff — which is not to say it wasn’t genuine, as the third baseman seemed to thoroughly enjoy his time in Toronto.
That wasn’t all he said, though, as Donaldson was relatively blunt on a couple of topics about his Blue Jays tenure.
Health and the High Performance Department
The first was the team’s ability to keep him healthy, or lack thereof. During the offseason, he’d already mentioned how Atlanta appealed to him due to his ability to reunite with trainer George Poulis and his assistant, Mike Frostad — a duo he worked with when he missed just 11 games in 2015 and 2016 combined.
On Tuesday, he doubled down.
"Being back with George Poulis and Mike Frostad, they knew me,” he said. “They kept me on the field for a long time. In 2015 and 2016 I played 155 games every year. Things started to change here in 2017 and 2018. It might work for some guys, and I hope that it does. It didn't work for me."
Donaldson was only able to play a total of 165 games between 2017 and 2018, primarily due to issues with his right calf. He clearly believes that the Blue Jays’ “high performance department” did not do the best possible job helping him prevent injuries, or recover from them, during that span.
"In 2017 I bought in and worked out a full season with them,” he said. “This is documented, I've said this before. I learned stuff from them that's been good and I've learned stuff from those situations where at the end of the day it didn't work for me."
Whether the comments are directed at current head trainer Nikki Huffman — or more likely an overall organizational philosophy — Donaldson had no interest in making the dots hard to connect regarding how he felt the Blue Jays did in keeping him on the field.
A harder question to answer is whether his belief is justified. Working with Poulis and Frostad — both early in his Blue Jays tenure and now in Atlanta (where he’s played in 129 of a possible 133 games and excelled) — has correlated with durability for Donaldson. That said, building an alternate timeline where he only worked with them and speculating on how his health would’ve been different is an impossible task.
His exit from Toronto
Donaldson made it pretty clear on Tuesday that his departure from the Blue Jays did not go how he would have liked. To be fair, getting moved in an August deal for a player to be named later while rehabbing an injury isn’t anyone’s idea of a graceful exit.
Here is Donaldson’s primary diatribe on the issue:
What probably nags at me the most is how my career finished in Toronto. Not even being able to play at the time, trying to fight as hard as I could to get back. It wasn't working out. Kind of how everything transpired was that something that was tough. At the end of the day you kind of separate it as a business, but as a human being it can get tough. We do get frustrated and we do have other emotions that come about. I'm very understanding of what's going on. Even though things didn't work out the way I necessarily wanted them to, I'm glad I've been able to bounce back here.
The 33-year-old clearly felt things would have been significantly different if he hadn’t been nursing an injury. Instead of simply being traded to a contender at the July deadline like so many other veterans on losing teams, he was shown the door in a deal that was on the edge of illegality to the point of making a number of MLB teams unhappy.
"It'd been a completely different scenario if I'd been on the field and I'd been playing well and they'd say 'hey we're going to change course,' I could understand that,” he said. “But for me I felt like I'd played so hard for this organization I felt that I'd done some things well here and didn't want to leave in that kind of scenario, not even healthy enough to play. That hurt."
The word ‘hurt’ is interesting there as Donaldson used it again in his next spiel on the issue — this time when asked if he felt like the Blue Jays wronged him.
"I've never said they've done wrong by me. I understand the business. I've been traded three times now,” he said. “It hurts. Especially when you're part of a team that you really loved and appreciated being with and can see where the organization was at and then where we had kind of taken it."
Just like the quotations on his health, Donaldson wasn't as explicit as he might have been about his exit, but still made himself clear.
The direction of the Blue Jays
Right now, it’s hard to dispute the Blue Jays are trending in a positive direction. They have a long way to go, and it’s no sure thing they’ll achieve the window of contention this front office envisions, but the team has graduated some incredibly promising young players and a core is starting to take shape. In that context, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask Josh Donaldson what he thought of the up-and-coming Blue Jays, but he showed complete disinterest in the topic.
"I have no opinion — or it's not that I have no opinion — I have nothing to say about how the front office for the Toronto Blue Jays wants to run their team,” he said. “It's their team, they can do whatever they want."
He was far more verbose, however, when describing the downward direction he identified as a player in the 2016 offseason.
"In 2016 I pretty much had a sense of that when we didn't re-sign Encarnacion and signed Morales to a three-year deal. I try to be as realistic as possible and there was no talk between any of our core guys about a contract. So it seemed they were going to free agency at the time. Whoever they were signing it was a one-year deal or three-year deal. So I kind of had the hint that it would play out like it has."
That’s far from a vicious attack on the Blue Jays front office, and it’s hard to dispute the validity of anything in there. However, it’s not the sort of thing you would have heard from Donaldson when he was wearing a Blue Jays uniform and an interesting insight into what the mindset of players on the 2017 and 2018 teams might have been like.
It’s indisputable that Donaldson is a smart guy who knows exactly how to choose his words. That makes everything he said on Tuesday a lot more interesting. Although he didn’t hit the Blue Jays with any broadsides, there were a few shots in passing, and you can bet your bottom dollar the veteran slugger knew exactly how they’d be interpreted.
By and large, Donaldson’s return to Toronto will be a love-in. It should be, considering he’s arguably the best position player in Blue Jays history on a per game basis.
The sourness that exists is between Donaldson and the team’s front office, and the former clearly isn’t afraid of letting it rise to the surface.
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