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Josh Donaldson and the Blue Jays are stuck together – for now

After he won the 2015 American League MVP, Josh Donaldson went on a small charm offensive. He had no option to leave, but still clearly wanted to say the sort of things that would smooth the salary-arbitration process.

"I would love to end my career in Toronto. I love playing there," Donaldson said. "I feel blessed to be in the situation of where I'm at right now."

He said it a few times in a few different places, so that everyone would get the message.

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Athletes are great believers in the consequence-free loyalty pledge because people like to hear it and it's non-binding. All we ask is that they leave the second thought – "… if they offer me a lot more money than anyone else …" – unsaid.

They know they don't really mean it. We know they don't really mean it. But everyone pretends they mean it. It's good manners.

Donaldson reupped on that idea Sunday as the miserable Blue Jays season came to an end, though less emphatically.

He told MLB.com that he would be "tickled pink" to remain a Jay long term, "but at the end of the day I don't make those decisions."

He's got a point. If the Blue Jays had any interest in wrapping up their best player for the remainder of his career, that would already have happened. Donaldson sent out that little feeler two years ago and it drifted off into nothingness.

In a different market, Donaldson's future would have been the story of this baseball season. The only thing missing from his local legacy is length of service, but his impact is still difficult to overstate. He is the face of the Jays' renaissance, as well as the only top player untainted by the failures of 2017.

Now that Jose Bautista is on his way out, Donaldson is Toronto baseball.

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And yet he is being left to dangle by the organization because it's in the midst of an extended identity crisis.

Are the Jays a good baseball team? Well, they keep saying that. The really wild thing is that they may actually believe it.

That Toronto finished second-last in the division, having never once crawled over .500, is powerful evidence to the contrary.

This year, every AL team with a winning record made the postseason. You didn't need to be the 1927 Yankees to stand out in this field. Yet the Jays were still trolling the bottom of it.

But as long as they keep saying words like "luck" and "trust" and "faith," some people will believe the sales pitch.

The key to selling yourself as a good baseball team is Donaldson. He was injured for most of the first two months of the season, and was still the team's best hitter over all. Since he no longer has any real protection in the order, this was, in some ways, Donaldson's finest year as a Jay. He did it largely by himself.

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In August and September, after most of the rest of his teammates had given up, Donaldson was close to the best player in the majors.

The Jays cannot let Donaldson go and still credibly claim they are a winner. Regardless of what you get back, his exit is the equivalent of pressing the self-destruct button.

Which is why Donaldson and the Jays are stuck together, though some sort of amicable breakup would probably benefit both parties.

The Jays are not going to win anything in 2018 unless just about every single thing breaks right for them. Since that never happens in baseball, it's a fair bet that the Jays are not going to win anything. That's not a certainty, but it is a likelihood.

If that's your starting point – probable mediocrity – it makes sense to trade Donaldson now, while he's still worth something.

The St. Louis Cardinals made it known this week that they're sniffing around. That'll draw a crowd quickly.

The Jays could put them off in a variety of ways. The easiest would be to engage Donaldson in long-term contract talks. But nobody has come anywhere close to suggesting that's a possibility.

If they aren't going to do it now, when you can still buy some value in his last arbitration year, they certainly aren't going to do it next year.

Donaldson will be nearly 33 when he becomes a free agent after next season.

Baseball is not kind to players in their mid- to late 30s, especially the ones like Donaldson who've started to experience recurring injuries from the waist down. Once your legs start to go, your interior Doomsday Clock has begun ticking.

As a result, very few teams would give Donaldson the sort of six-year deal that was the benchmark for middle-aged all-stars just a few seasons ago.

Toronto isn't one of them. It may be the most financially risk-averse team in baseball. The Jays have learned that lesson the easy way.

Shortly after Donaldson's "Toronto forever" outburst, Bautista played contract chicken with the Mark Shapiro regime and lost badly. That refusal to bend may be Shapiro's biggest personal win as club president. Had he caved, it would eventually have been the thing that got him fired.

Having been proved so right with Bautista, Shapiro's not going to take the chance of getting it all wrong with Donaldson.

But he also can't let Donaldson go right now. That's surrender. That's admitting you've spent the whole year telling porky pies until everyone reups their season tickets, and only finding rebuild religion once the books are balanced.

It would not be a good look if you're planning on a series of 70-win seasons for the foreseeable future.

So expect Josh Donaldson back, on a very temporary basis.

His 2018 job is to play third, bat second and convince the viewing public that fourth place is just like first, if you think of it the right way.

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