Jays’ Donaldson Develops Into MVP Candidate

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In his first season with the Toronto Blue Jays following a stunning trade from the Oakland Athletics last offseason, 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson is making a case for American League MVP and the title of Major League Baseball’s best at the hot corner. But his path to becoming one of MLB’s best players wasn’t as clear-cut as it may seem.

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Donaldson is finding his first season in Canada to be a successful one, as he currently leads the team with 24 home runs That’s quite an accomplishment on a team that features big-time sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.

When the Cubs drafted Donaldson out of Auburn University with the 48th overall pick in the 2007 Amateur Draft, he was actually a catcher by trade — and he wasn’t always the strong hitter that he has become today.

After spending five and a half seasons in the minors before finally getting an opportunity in the big leagues, it looked as if the former first round pick was going to be a bust.

The beginning of Donaldson’s career got off to a promising start in 2007. As a 21-year-old, Donaldson hit .346 with the Boise Hawks of the short-season Northwest League. In 49 games, he smacked 9 home runs and drove in 35 runs while hitting .346.

However, the following season with the Peoria Chiefs in the low-A Midwest League, Donaldson hit just .217 with a .276 OBP in 63 games.

Despite being ranked the Cubs’ 7th best prospect by Baseball America following 2007, the organization decided he was expendable. Donaldson was shipped off to Oakland with three other players for pitchers Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden in July 2008.

Where the Cubs saw a player who no longer fit into their organization’s longterm plan, general manager Billy Beane and the Athletics saw a player with a world of potential.

Donaldson finished the 2008 season by hitting .330 with 9 long balls and 39 RBIs in 47 games for the Stockton Ports of the California League. Donaldson moved up a level in 2009, and went on to hit .270 while knocking in 91 runs — fifth most in the Texas League. His power numbers took a hit, however, as he belted just nine home runs in 455 at-bats.

Though his power would return during the course of the 2010 season, his batting average took a nosedive. With AAA Sacramento, Donaldson smacked 18 home runs, but hit a meager .238.

From one year to the next, it seemed as if Donaldson couldn’t put together a complete season. Nonetheless, Donaldson would be called up twice to Oakland that year. He made his major league debut on April 30, 2010, playing ten games before being sent back down. He was again called up when the rosters expanded in September and finished the year playing a total of 14 games, going 5 for 32 (.156) with 12 strikeouts.

Following his cup of tea in the majors in 2010, Donaldson spent the next season and a half in Sacramento. As a 26-year-old and in his third season in AAA in 2012, it looked like Donaldson would never blossom into the highly regarded player who MLB teams had scouted prior to the 2007 draft.

But in 2012, Donaldson found a new home on the diamond and some consistency at the plate — by accident. On the first day of spring training that season, presumptive 3rd baseman Scott Sizemore suffered a season-ending knee injury during a drill. The team was left without a proven 3rd baseman, and the A’s farm system was dry at that position.

With the team looking for answers, it was Donaldson who approached his manager, Bob Melvin, about playing third base, according to Eddie Matz of ESPN the Magazine. Melvin told Donaldson to take the position, and the rest is history.

Donaldson earned a spot on the A’s roster out of spring training, but got off to a slow start to the season and returned to AAA. He tore up Pacific Coast League pitching, batting a ridiculous .335 with 13 taters and 45 runs — all in just 51 games. Recalled to the big leagues in August, Donaldson continued his torrid pace.

Donaldson went 22 for 64 at the plate in August, a .408 clip, and followed that up with a September in which he batted to the tune of a .324 average. As a result, Donaldson was included on the A’s postseason roster. He collected five hits in the A’s ALDS series loss to the Detroit Tigers.

Even with this strong finish to the 2012 season, no one could have predicted the incredible season Donaldson would put together in 2013 — his first full season in the Major Leagues. That year, Donaldson blasted 24 home runs and had 93 RBIs.

He put together a superb .301/.384/.499 slash line, and finished fourth in the AL MVP voting. Quite the achievement for a guy who a few years before had looked destined for a career in the minor leagues.

Donaldson even proved he was a viable third baseman, recording 143 putouts, most among MLB third basemen. He also made headlines for his incredible highlight-reel catches over the O.co Coliseum tarp.

Last season, Donaldson showed he was no one-hit wonder by increasing his production. He hit 29 round-trippers, drove in 98 runs, and was selected to the first All-Star Game of his career. As a team, however, the A’s endured a crushing defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Wild Card game.

After the playoffs, Beane began to dismantle the club, trading away starter Jeff Samardzija, catcher Derek Norris, slugger Brandon Moss, and others. Donaldson was one of the casualties. He was sent to Toronto for Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie and three minor leaguers.

The deal stunned many A’s fans and people around baseball, as well as Donaldson. When the Blue Jays played a road series in Oakland last weekend for the first time since the trade, Donaldson talked to USA Today about how the move initially affected him.

It was definitely hard,’’ Donaldson said. “There were definitely some emotions going on because a lot of the guys who were here, we’d been through so much together, we kind of built what we thought was a core, some foundations. When you get traded … you’re definitely going to be hurt a little bit.’’

Though Oakland will probably always be special to Donaldson as the place where he got his first opportunity to play big league ball, he has taken the trade in stride in his first season across the border. He leads the Blue Jays potent attack with a .289 average, 24 home runs and 68 RBIs.

He also leads the Jays in hits (112), doubles (25), slugging percentage (.539) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.890). Donaldson’s 24 big flies tie for fifth best in the AL, while his 68 RBIs are tied for the most in the league. If he remains healthy, Donaldson should improve his offensive numbers for a 2nd straight season.

While his production has been impressive, Toronto fans have fallen in love with the way Donaldson plays the game. He received 14,090,188 all-star votes — the most ever for any player in history. While the AL MVP this season may actually go to Mike Trout again, Donaldson is putting the pressure on voters with what he has been able to accomplish for the Blue Jays.

Donaldson took an 0-3 last night, with a walk. He will look to add to his power numbers in tonight’s series finale at Rogers Centre in Toronto against Phillies’ righthander Jerome Williams. Williams will be making his second start since returning from the disabled list last week, and Donaldson is 7-27 (.304) including three doubles off Williams in their careers.

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