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Oh what could have been with the Indians and Josh Donaldson

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Despite a sour ending, everything about the Indians’ handling of super star Josh Donaldson was a picture of what makes this front office tick

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

The Josh Donaldson era of the Cleveland Indians is officially over.

By all means, you could have called it dead the second the season ended — no way the Indians were going to be able to bring him back in 2019 and beyond — but it officially came to a close earlier today when the Atlanta Braves inked him to a one-year, $23 million bombshell of a deal.

It didn’t quite result in the finish the Indians dreamed it would, but everything about how they handled Donaldson showed why this front office has built such a strong, contending team for several seasons.

Right from the start, you can look at how and when they acquired the three-time All-Star. They nabbed him at the very end of the waiver wire trade deadline, on August 31, 2018. While, sure, it wasn’t entirely up to the Indians when they got him, they didn’t run out and try to overwhelm the Toronto Blue Jays with an offer to get him prior to the season or even before the trade deadline, because frankly, they didn’t need him any earlier.

The Indians essentially had the division wrapped up after Opening Day, with no one in the American League Central posing a real threat outside of the Minnesota Twins before their Twinsian collapse that led to 2017 AL Manager of the Year Paul Molitor getting the boot. They didn’t panic, didn’t rush to the Blue Jays or other sellers on the market and give whatever they wanted for a full season of superfluous talent. They bided their time and got him at the last possible second, for the least possible cost.

Julian Merryweather may turn into a perennial All-Star or some mega talent for the Blue Jays, but the 27-year-old coming off Tommy John Surgery was the epitome of a redundant prospect in Cleveland. His 2015 and 2016 seasons were nice, where he posted a 3.11 ERA with 188 strikeouts in 205.2 innings pitched between Double- and Triple-A. But his 2017 season a total disaster before he hit the disabled list; and with the likes of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer, and other young pitchers potentially carrying the staff for years, the Indians didn’t need to gamble on a pitcher putting it together in a couple years. They needed to gamble on a bat, so they sent him to Blue Jays in exchange for a month (or hopefully more) of Donaldson.

That’s what made the Josh Donaldson trade so great, even though it didn’t end in a World Series. It was the perfect gamble for the perfect price. The Indians didn’t need Donaldson to put up a 7+ WAR season for an entire year, and there were never any real hopes of bringing him back long term. They needed him for one or two big clutch hits in the postseason, and that’s exactly what they got him for.

After slashing .234/.352/.449 for a 117 wRC+ in 36 games with the Blue Jays, the Indians were able to get him into 16 regular-season games after they acquired him and rehabbed him off the disabled list. He slashed .234/.400/.520 for an impressive (and unsustainable) 149 wRC+. Could he seriously keep doing this when the games really counted and make the Indians look like geniuses?

Narrator voice: He could not.

It didn’t work, obviously, as he went 1-for-11 as the Indians were swept out of the playoffs by the Astros. But gambles don’t always pay off, and unlike gambling with huge chunks of your payroll or roster depth, the Indians didn’t lose much of anything in the deal.

One or two key swings and this easily goes down as the best trade in Indians history. As it is, it’ll be a fun trivia fact in 10 years.