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Josh Donaldson's Absence Has Blue Jays Spiraling to Uncertain Offseason Early

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2016

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 10: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays falls after being knocked down by a high pitch in the fifth inning during MLB game action against the Boston Red Sox on September 10, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Forget shoulders—the Toronto Blue Jays' season rests squarely on Josh Donaldson's right hip.

Donaldson underwent an MRI on Wednesday, per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). The results were unknown as of this writing, but the injury has been enough to keep the reigning American League MVP out of the lineup for the last three games.

The hip tweak ostensibly occurred when Donaldson stepped awkwardly on first base in a game against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday, per MLB.com's Alykhan Ravjiani. But it was apparently a cumulative problem.

"Pretty much all season long it's beennot necessarily my hipbut pretty much lower body injuries all season," Donaldson said, per Ravjiani. "That's more of the gradual thing, and then all of a sudden I felt it in my hip where I didn't feel like I was able to perform."

Whatever the genesis, the injury undoubtedly has Jays fans on edge, as this tweet, courtesy of Sportsnet.ca's Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro, perfectly illustrates: 

Tim and Sid @timandsid

#Jays fans listening to Josh Donaldson talk about his hip injury like... https://t.co/ziC15FytUZ

You don't need to be reminded how important Donaldson is to this Toronto team, but we'll remind you anyway. He ranks fourth in the AL with 6.6 WAR. He's second on the Jays in home runs (34) and RBI (92) and paces the team in OPS (.952).

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Yes, the three-time All-Star third baseman was mired in an 0-for-23 slump that may have been a result of the lower-body troubles he alluded to. But he's the beating heart of this offense, no two ways about it. If he's out much longer, or if he returns at significantly less than 100 percent, Toronto is probably hosed.

After losing 8-1 Wednesday to the cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Rays, the Jays (79-66) are clinging to the AL's second wild-card slot. But they've fallen into third place in the AL East, behind the first-place Boston Red Sox (81-64) and wild-card-leading Baltimore Orioles (80-65). 

The Detroit Tigers (78-67), Seattle Mariners (77-68) and upstart New York Yankees (77-68), meanwhile, are breathing down the Blue Jays' neck. If they continue the trend that's seen them go 3-9 in September, they'll likely finish out of the postseason money.

Toronto's issues go deeper than Donaldson. Other key hitters, including Jose Bautista and Russell Martin, have faltered. Right-hander Aaron Sanchez, once in the Cy Young Award conversation, owns a 5.00-plus ERA since the start of August. And the bullpen has suffered some hiccups.

"I don’t see how much lower it can go," skipper John Gibbons said after Wednesday's defeat, per the Toronto Star's Rosie Dimanno. "I'm optimistic that this will turn and turn in a hurry."

If it doesn't, Toronto will spiral earlier than expected into an uncertain offseason. 

Manager John Gibbons said he doesn't know "how much lower" the Jays can sink.
Manager John Gibbons said he doesn't know "how much lower" the Jays can sink.Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, cornerstones of an offense that lit the world on fire during the 2015 division-title run and is again among baseball's most powerful, will hit the market this winter.

In a weak free-agent class, it's probable both men will command contracts beyond the Blue Jays' modest means. They could end up signing with either the Yankees or Red Sox, both of whom have gaudy payrolls, solid MLB talent and fertile MiLB farms.

The Jays have some pieces of their own in the pipeline. But it's a stretch to expect adequate Bautista and Encarnacion replacements from a system Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked No. 19 in baseball.

As Scott Stinson of the National Post aptly opined, "If there is a chunk of the fanbase that is exceedingly anxious now, it will take every one of the city’s recently opened marijuana dispensaries to calm nerves should the heart of the lineup move to the neighbouring rivals."

The Jays aren't necessarily sunkthis season or going forward. An upcoming four-game set against the lowly Los Angeles Angels offers an opportunity to get healthy in more ways than one.

But former Boston general manager Ben Cheringtonwhom Toronto hired as its new vice president of baseball operations Wednesday, per Sportsnet.ca's Ben Nicholson-Smithhas his work cut out for him if he's going to keep the club competitive with its big-spending, heavy-hitting division rivals.

It's too early to talk about windows closing just yet. But unless the Jays find a way to right this ship posthaste, Donaldson's hip won't be the only thing that's hurting.

     

All statistics and standings current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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