PHOENIX – At the conclusion of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, Josh Donaldson was an afterthought. It was worse than that, actually. He had spent the entire 2011 season in Sacramento, the Oakland Athletics’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, and must have felt more like a totally forgotten man than a mere afterthought.
Donaldson was 25 years old in 2011, and played in 51 more games for the River Cats in 2012. Those Triple-A games came after he made his major league debut with the A’s on April 30, 2010, and after appearing in 14 big-league games before being sent back down.
Something needed to happen for Donaldson; something needed to click. He was far too versatile in the field and had far too much potential with a bat in his hand to be a career minor-leaguer. In all or parts of six seasons down on the farm, he had played all four infield positions, left and right field and catcher.
The Chicago Cubs selected him as first-round sandwich pick with the 48th pick in the 2007 draft as a catcher, three years after he had signed with Auburn University as a shortstop; he also pitched for the Tigers.
Donaldson decided to go to the Dominican Republic and play winter ball after the 2012 season and concentrated on playing third base. And then a funny thing happened here in the desert during spring training a year ago this month.
“(Oakland GM) Billy Beane pulled me aside one day and asked me, ‘Josh, who is our starting third baseman?’” Donaldson told Charles Goldberg from AuburnTigers.com in an interview last May. “I looked at him with a puzzled look. ‘Is he trying to set me up?’ But he put his arm around me and said, ‘You’re our starting third baseman. There’s nobody else for the job – just you.’”
It was another great call by the “Moneyball” man, Billy Beane.
In 158 games as the A’s starting third baseman in 2013, Donaldson produced a slash-line of .301/.384/.499 with 64 extra-base hits (24 HRs, 37 2Bs, 3 3Bs), 76 walks, 93 RBI and 89 runs scored. He finished fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting behind the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the Angels’ Mike Trout – they also finished 1-2 in 2012 – and the Orioles’ Chris Davis.
“It was one of those things where you start feeling pretty good about yourself and then throughout all the days playing, you’re able to stay pretty healthy,” Donaldson told Perfect Game in a brief interview session Wednesday morning from the A’s clubhouse at venerable Phoenix Municipal Stadium. “It was a nice ride throughout the whole season.”
Donaldson spoke with PG before the A’s hosted the Kansas City Royals under a cloudless sky and brilliant desert sun in what would be their 16th Cactus League game of the spring. (In a side note, the A’s started left-handed veteran Scott Kazmir, an alumnus of the 2001 PG National Showcase).
It’s true. The 2013 season truly was a “nice ride” for Donaldson. The journey leading up to that MVP-caliber campaign was a little more unusual.
The 28-year-old Donaldson was born in Pensacola, Fla., identified Daphne, Ala., as his hometown during his two-year Perfect Game career and graduated from Faith Academy High School in Mobile, Ala., in 2004.
He made his Perfect Game tournament debut at the 2002 PG WWBA 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., and then arrived at the 2003 PG Underclass World Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., a couple of months later. He capped his career at the 2003 PG WWBA PG/BA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., playing with Team Florida USA.
Perfect Game scouts got their first real in-depth look at Donaldson at that 2003 PG Underclass World Showcase and left Southwest Florida more than impressed. Donaldson’s scouting report read:
“Wow, a giant surprise to us! This kid is a draft prospect! He runs, has a big-time plus arm from the infield, can hit and flashes power. Very athletic body and good actions in the field and at the plate. Excellent prospect that could end up being a good draft pick. Can play for any college in the country.”
Donaldson knew he had made an impression.
“That was kind of the time when I was trying to show myself to college and stuff like that,” he said Wednesday. “I felt that I had a possibility to get drafted and that was just a great way to go out there and try to get some exposure for me.”
Like every top prospect, Donaldson also enjoyed surrounding himself with other great players. 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates was a teammate of his on Team Florida USA at the 2003 PG WWBA PG/BA World Championship and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey also played in that tournament.
“I had played against a lot of (good) competition growing up through all of the travel ball teams and stuff like that,” Donaldson said. “But it was actually cool at those (PG events) to see how your tools lined up with a lot of the other kids, too.”
Despite the rave reviews he received on the PG circuit and despite being ranked No. 145 nationally in the class of 2004, Donaldson wasn’t drafted out of high school. Undaunted, the one-time three-sport star at Faith Academy packed his gear and headed to Auburn to begin a three-year career with the Tigers in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
After a bit of a slow start, Donaldson settled in and in 47 games as a freshman hit .294 with seven home runs, seven doubles, 26 RBI and 20 runs scored.
“My freshman year I actually kind of struggled in the fall,” he said. “I started the season on the bench but then I was actually able to get some playing time at the end of the season and I ended up playing pretty well.”
That set the stage for what would become a very productive college career. He hit .276 with 10 home runs, 16 doubles, 42 RBI and 39 runs as a sophomore then went off his senior season, hitting .349 with 11 home runs, 19 doubles, 54 RBI and 63 runs scored. Over three seasons at Auburn, he hit .307 with 28 home runs, 42 doubles, 122 RBI and 122 runs in 158 games. Those numbers compare favorably to a 162-game MLB season.
The Cubs drafted him as a catcher and he spent a year-and-a-half in their farm system playing that position before being traded to Oakland on July 8, 2008. The next four years spent primarily in the minor leagues were a struggle at times but once Donaldson joined the A’s big-league club for good in 2012, the A’s, too, took off.
Oakland claimed back-to-back American League West Division championships in 2012-13, winning 94 games in 2012 and 96 in 2013. It lost in the League Division Series to the Detroit Tigers both years with both series going the maximum five games.
The A’s are back in force in 2014 and there are those who are predicting a third straight AL West title despite the relative strengths of the Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. The AL West rivals the AL East as the best in baseball.
“We feel good about ourselves,” said Donaldson, who had five hits in his first 21 Cactus League at-bats (.238) this spring, including a pair of home runs. “We feel like we have a really good team and we’re ready to compete and ready to get after it.”
And, for a second straight year, they know exactly who their starting third baseman is going to be.