PROSPECT PATH: JOSH DONALDSON

This is the first in a series of features on the path to The Show for current MLB regulars

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

Josh Donaldson is holding down the hot corner for the defending AL west champions, the Oakland A’s, and his presence is a major factor in the club’s surprising 2012 division crown and impending repeat performance. While the A’s currently have a 7 1/2 game lead, with a magic number of 1 going into Sunday’s action, the team remains largely anonymous to most baseball fans. But even if the post-season spotlight finally shines on this soon-to-be repeat division winner, one of the club’s most productive stars will probably still be overlooked due to the compelling personalities on the roster such as closer Grant Balfour, RF Josh Reddick and top-of-the-order spark plug CF Coco Crisp.

Donaldson plays a solid 3B and is a consistent producer in the middle of the batting order. While his batting line sits at .306/.338/.510, he also ranks near the top in many key categories on FanGraphs.com’s defensive leaderboard, such as UZR, UZR/150 and RngR. Not bad for a 3B who converted to the catcher position in college, only to go back to third base in the A’s system years later.

Josh Donaldson was drafted out of college (Auburn) by the Cubs in the supplemental round of the 2007 First Year Player Draft, the 48th pick overall. On July 8, 2008, while in his third minor league stop in the Cubs’ organization, Donaldson was included in a package of prospects that were shipped to the A’s for RHP Rich Harden. (RHP Sean Gallagher, OF Matt Murton and INF/OF Eric Patterson also went to Oakland while RHP Chad Gaudin went with Harden to the Cubs).

As a catcher, Donaldson showed power in his minor league stops but didn’t really distinguish himself as the force that he has become for the A’s over the last two seasons. Here’s a look back at Donaldson’s progress and Baseball America’s observations along the way.

2007

In two minor league stops, Donaldson played in 53 games and got 173 AB in the AZL and the short season Northwest League . His combined line was an impressive .335/.460/.590 and he looked to be on his way up the Cubs’ chain.

2008

After a promotion to the single-A Midwest League, Donaldson got off to a slow start (.217/.276/.349) and found himself part of a mid-season trade that landed him and three other Cubs players in Oakland, with pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin going to Chicago.

The A’s sent their new C prospect to hiA Stockton and Donaldson thrived in 47 games, batting .330/.391/.564 with 9 HR and 39 RBI.

2009

Next up was Midland of the AA Texas League and Donaldson showed a steady stroke and continued development at this level. Still a catcher, his batting line was .270/.379/.415 with 9 HR and 91 RBI, prompting Baseball America to comment:

He has toned down the aggressive stride he had in college to give himself a more compact swing, and he has an outstanding feel for the strike zone. The A’s are confident Donaldson’s power will continue developing, and he has strength to hit the ball out to all fields. 

2010

Donaldson began the 2010 season as the #14 prospect in Oakland’s system according to Baseball America. He played 86 games for AAA Sacramento, but on April 30th Donaldson got into his first major league game as a pinch-hitter. The next day, May 1st, Donaldson got his first major league hit with a two-run homer off of Toronto’s Dana Eveland.

In two stints with Oakland, at the beginning and end of the season, Donaldson had 32 ABs with a line of .156/.206/.281. In the 86 games at Sacramento he set a career-high with 18 homers and produced a line of .238/.336/.476.

Baseball America, complimentary on his approach the year before, noted his aggressiveness again as a point that needed improvement:

He has fine raw power for a catcher and his 19 homers (combined AAA and MLB) last year were a career high. He has good feel for the strike zone but needs to have a better approach and tone down his aggressiveness if he’s going to hit for average. He tends to press and get himself out in front on pitches.

2011

All of 2011 was spent in Sacramento where Donaldson saw some action at 3B. Baseball America had him ranked as Oakland’s #12 organizational prospect as a catcher, ranked behind only Max Stassi at that position.

For the year, Donaldson hit .261/.344/.439 at AAA with 17 homers. In 444 ABs he walked 51 times but set a career-high with 100 strikeouts. Baseball America noted that he was still primarily a catcher, but also talked about the issue of aggressiveness at the plate, this time noting more improvement:

Overly aggressive in the past, he cut down on his swing and started managing at-bats rather than just trying to crank home runs. He has a feel for taking balls the other way and at least average raw power, which stands out behind the plate.

And defensively, BA opined:

The A’s liked what they saw from him at the hot corner and consider him an option there, but he’s still primarily a catcher. He has a strong arm that is viable at either spot.

2012

Despite the progress made in 2011, Baseball America dropped Donaldson down in Oakland’s organizational rankings to #20, still second at the catcher position behind Stassi. The year was split between AAA Sacramento (51 games) and the A’s (75 games). The AAA numbers were impressive at .335/.402/.598 but Donaldson became an anchor in Oakland after Brandon Inge’s injury and contributed mightily to the A’s improbable playoff run. Taking over as the everyday 3B, Donaldson posted a line of .241/.289/.398 while manager Bob Melvin plugged in various players all over the diamond to piece together a division winner.

Down the stretch, the new third baseman posted some of his best numbers with 17 games in August that produced a .344/.408/.625 mark along with 4 HRs. Sept/Oct was a bit of a dropoff but the power was there with 4 more longballs. Over the 75 games on the major league level, Donaldson played 71 games at 3B with 3 games behind the plate and one at 1B.

2013

Baseball America left Donaldson off of their organizational rankings prior to this season. That’s what happens when a player establishes himself on the major league level and goes into Spring Training as a regular. Donaldson did just that and is having a breakout year as the A’s get set for more October baseball. With a little over a week left in the 2013 season, Donaldson’s batting .306/.388/.510 with 24 HR, 91 RBI, 85 runs scored and 72 walks against 103 strikeouts. That’s over 638 plate appearances, a career high.

Beyond the offensive numbers, Donaldson has flashed the leather at 3B to produce numerous highlight plays all season long while being one of Melvin’s most reliable contributors. So much so that USA Today’s MVP tracker had Dondaldson at the top of the list on September 17th.

Josh Donaldson won’t win the MVP this year, though he will most likely get some votes. That’s hardly an issue for the power-hitting infielder who is enjoying success on the team level with another post season bid imminent. The A’s are a surprise to many, but so is Donaldson.

While Baseball America and other observers had many complimentary things to say about Josh Donaldson as he climbed through the minor leagues, nobody was predicting he was going to be the force that he is for the A’s. As a third baseman, no less. Some of the commentary was about his strong throwing arm from behind the dish and how his foot speed was not bad for a catcher.  

Photo: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

As the 2013 season winds down, Josh Donaldson enjoys that darkhorse MVP candidacy because of his stellar defense at the hot corner and his reliable production from the middle of the Oakland lineup. Not many saw it coming as his grades were consistently good, not great. But that’s the challenge of scouting and Donaldson is justifying his supplemental first-round draft status as the A’s are establishing themselves as the heirs to the Texas Rangers atop the AL west.

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