Toronto Blue Jays: Concern over Josh Donaldson’s throwing

John Gibbons: “We don’t think it’s a big deal, just dead.” Dead arm Donaldson gives the Blue Jays a harsh reality check.

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(Photo Credit: Keith Allison)

It wasn’t the start of the season the Toronto Blue Jays were hoping for.

They were outplayed in every aspect of the game against the New York Yankees, who many pundits have already pegged as AL East favorites if not World Series favorites. New Yankee toy Giancarlo Stanton flashed his prodigious power with a laser two-run shot off JA Happ in the first inning, and then a moonshot off Tyler Clippard in the ninth. Luis Severino cruised for 5.2 innings, and the Yankee bullpen secured the rest.

But the first of 162 games means little in the grand scheme of things. A division title is neither won nor lost on Opening Day, which is why the Blue Jays can brush off the team’s performance and look ahead to the next game. A 6-1 loss with 161 more to go? Not a big deal.

What is a big deal is how superstar Josh Donaldson looked. Specifically, how Donaldson threw the baseball. The glove was as flashy as ever, and Donaldson, historically, has had a rifle of an arm to help round out his elite status at the hot corner. Except, on Opening Day 2018, that rifle looked more like a water gun, a soaked noodle languid and heavy as it cocked back and gained first base in its sights. 

There were concerns over Donaldson’s health in Spring Training when a balky calf, the same injury that limited him to 113 games in 2017, flared up and sidelined him for a few games. Now, there are concerns over his shoulder, a “dead arm,” as Jays manager John Gibbons called it according to Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet

Reports from the Blue Jays’ clubhouse show there’s no major concern over Donaldson’s affliction, with Gibbons going as far to say “it’s not a big deal, just dead.” Despite the quote of the year candidate, and despite the expectation that Donaldson will see more time at designated hitter, Donaldson’s ailing right arm could have a major impact on the Blue Jays.

An unforgiving division

The Blue Jays learned how good the Yankees can be. They also learned their best player isn’t at his best.

If the Blue Jays are to seriously contend in a division that’s shaping up to be a two-horse race, they need their best players to be in top form. But Troy Tulowitzki was transferred to the 60 day disabled list prior to the start of the season, and the Jays can ill afford to have both Tulowitzki to Donaldson miss significant time.

Because out of the gate, the Jays will fight an uphill battle. If the Yankees and Red Sox are to be as good as advertised, then Toronto will have to set their sights on one of two AL Wild Card slots. They have a deep and talented enough pitching rotation to keep that goal a real possibility, but their offense will have to outslug the likes of the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, and either the Yankees or Red Sox. It’s no secret Donaldson, when healthy, is one of the most prolific sluggers in the game, and not having him at the top of the lineup complete changes the dynamic of a Jays offense that finished 26th in runs scored and 10th in home runs last year.

If Donaldson’s shoulder ailment had been a sudden occurrence, then the cause for concern might have been far lesser than what it is now. But reports of shoulder discomfort have surfaced since Spring Training. Which begs the question: could it be something more serious?

A forewarning of something worse?

Dead arms can show a worse injury that has not yet been discovered. 

The term “dead arm” and “fatigue” are often interchanged to describe an instance when a ballplayer suddenly loses strength in his throwing arm. Those suffering from dead arm may also experience pain focused in the shoulder or bicep area. This is mainly because the act of externally rotating one’s arm to create the overhead throwing motion is an unnatural motion; this compromises the structural integrity of the shoulder joint which can lead to serious injury and a long rehabilitation process.

According to studies, a dead arm can be linked to labrum tears that hinder the forward progress of an arm through the throwing motion. An injury more associated with pitchers, a labrum tear has been said to be one of the worst injuries in baseball, more so than the once dreaded but now common ulnar collateral ligament tear (UCL). A sign of a tear is often seen in dipped velocity and decreased arm speed.

That’s not to say Donaldson has a torn labrum, but it is a cause for concern considering it has been an injury that’s plagued him for the last month. It hindered his progression through Spring Training, limiting him to only four hits in 27 at-bats. And frankly, this Donaldson looks far different from this Donaldson that was named the 2015 AL MVP.

Moving forward for the Jays

The Blue Jays will have to monitor this situation closely. They can’t afford to lose Donaldson’s bat in the lineup, but to play him at third base regularly with a less than 100% arm can cause serious injury to Donaldson, and put the Jays’ future in jeopardy.

Donaldson is in his walk year. He’s expected to hit free agency next offseason and command a contract worthy of someone with an MVP and two Silver Slugger awards in the last three years. The Jays will be loathe, if they find themselves out of contention, to let him go with nothing in return. It seems they already have Donaldson’s heir apparent in Vlad Guerrero Jr waiting in the minors, but a healthy Donaldson on the trade market could garner a king’s ransom.

A return package could be far less enticing if this dead arm persists throughout the course of the year. Donaldson’s value is twofold; his elite offensive production coupled with an equally elite defensive skillset has made him a top player in the MLB in the last five years. Any buyer at the trade deadline who’s looking for that final piece to make a run at the World Series would chomp at the bit for a guy like Donaldson. 

Except there now appears to be a major risk with Donaldson. Will that shoulder grow increasingly unstable as the season progresses? Will there be structural damage to require serious surgery? 

It may all be moot points if Donaldson emerges at the end of the week with the rifle of an arm everyone is accustomed to seeing. It’s foolish to place all your hopes and fears into one game, especially the first game of many more to come. 

But something didn’t seem right with Donaldson, and that’s not what the Blue Jays need right out of the starting gate. 

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