TORONTO — For the Toronto Blue Jays, who had advanced to the American League Championship Series in the two seasons prior and enraptured an entire country in the process, the 2017 campaign was, from the get-go, a nightmare.
Just ask Josh Donaldson, who pulled up lame less than two weeks after Opening Day and ended up spending more than a month on the disabled list with an injured calf muscle.
"What could've went wrong for us last year, went wrong," Donaldson said during a recent appearance at Blue Jays Winter Fest. "And it happened early, and we weren't really able to bounce back. And that was difficult."
Losing is hard, especially when you've developed a taste for winning, and the Blue Jays did a lot of it in 2017, finishing 76-86 - nine games back of a wild-card spot - while routinely scrambling to plug up a hole somewhere on the roster. After Donaldson got hurt, so did Aaron Sanchez. And J.A. Happ. And Troy Tulowitzki. Then Sanchez again. Then Russell Martin. Then Steve Pearce. Etcetera. "Difficult" was probably Donaldson being diplomatic.
Still, whether all those injuries and all that losing were harbingers of the new normal remains to be seen.
Incidentally, Donaldson wasn't originally expected to attend Winter Fest, the first centralized hobnob-with-the-players offseason event engineered by the Blue Jays' newish front office. But a couple of days before the big shindig, he was added to the event's roster, and the third baseman - who recently agreed to terms with the club on a $23-million deal for 2018, his final year under contract with Toronto - dutifully showed up to meet and greet the 16,000-plus fans that crammed into Rogers Centre, wet boots and all.
In a sense, though, his surprise appearance mirrored a disquieting truth about his now-revamped team's upcoming season: If Donaldson doesn't steal the show, it may well be a dud. He doesn't really see it that way, obviously, but, then again, it's easy to be hopeful when there's still snow on the ground.
"I'm excited," Donaldson said. "I'm always excited for a new season. I'm probably a little bit more excited about this season because of how last season ended, and kind of wanting to get the team back on the right track and back to winning the way that we have in the previous couple years."
It won't be easy.
As currently constituted, the Blue Jays are projected to flirt with a wild-card spot, and any discussion of the team's prospects for 2018 invariably begins with "Well, if (Player X) stays healthy ..." (By actual days spent on the disabled list, Toronto was the fifth-most banged-up team in 2017.) And, to his credit, general manager Ross Atkins has been tenacious in his efforts to insure against continued injury woes, adding a slew of versatile, athletic depth players with offensive upside - Randal Grichuk, Curtis Granderson, Yangervis Solarte, and Aledmys Diaz - to effectively guarantee that no sub-replacement-level scrubs will receive even semi-regular at-bats in 2018.
That said, even with a more dynamic roster - and a significantly higher floor - John Gibbons can't platoon his way around the probability that anything less than another terrific season from Donaldson, now 32, will render everything else moot. That kind of pressure could cripple a player. Donaldson relishes it.
"It's not something that's uncommon, for me to be in this situation where a team's success kind of depends on how I'm playing," he said. "You just got to understand that, and continue to embrace that. It's not something that I shy away from. I want to be that guy. I have been that guy."
WAR leaderboard, 2013-17
See that guy directly under Mike Trout? The guy who has averaged roughly 7.1 WAR per season over the last half-decade? That guy is the guy. And, barring another injury, there's no reason to believe he won't be that guy in 2018, just as he was in each of his first three seasons with the Blue Jays.
Despite being limited to 113 games by that calf injury, Donaldson was still a top-20 player last season, putting up a .944 OPS (144 OPS+) with 33 home runs while accounting for a whopping 51 percent of the WAR amassed by Toronto's position players. Interestingly, in the American League, no other player produced even 42 percent of his team's total WAR, though that likely says as much about the rest of the Blue Jays' lineup as it does Donaldson.
His batted-ball metrics, while not quite as strong as 2016, were also elite - he finished among the top 17 in the majors in both average exit velocity (90.7 mph) and barrel rate (8.7 percent) - and his torrid finish to the campaign suggests his injury was at least partly to blame for his substandard first half.
|Donaldson||1st half||2nd half|
|Average exit velocity||89.9||91.1|
|Average launch angle||11.2||15.0|
For what it's worth, Donaldson believes he can still get better, too.
"I always believe that I have room for improvement," Donaldson said. "For me, I think if I'm able to get little improvements, that's going to be beneficial for my game. I'm not looking to completely rehaul anything.
"This season, being injured, I definitely feel - I know - that I can be better there because my entire career I've never been injured the way that I was last season. So I'm going to go out there and continue to do the things that I've been doing and been successful at, and continue to figure out ways to improve. I don't feel as if I've slowed down at all, and I feel like I'm just kind of constantly getting better - not in huge margins, in little margins."
Any incremental gains would be gravy for Donaldson, a soon-to-be free agent (to his knowledge, he said, his agent hasn't had any recent discussions with Toronto about an extension), and could be hugely consequential for the Blue Jays, who, following Atkins' floor-raising efforts, may soon discover that the gulf between them and a wild-card spot is but a "little margin."
A step in the opposite direction, however, and the Blue Jays' retooling will likely be for naught.