A long time ago, whenever Tim Hudson was having an Episode, Mac Thomason would say, “Never, never trust an Auburn Tiger.” You couldn’t quite take it literally — even though he did it enough that Mac literally added it to the Glossary, Huddy retired with 1573 innings pitched in a Braves uniform with an overall 115 ERA+, from age 29 to 37. That’s about as good as you can hope for from a pitcher you didn’t develop yourself.
Well, it’s time for the Bama fans on this blog to ignore ancient hatreds one more time, because the Braves picked themselves up a good ‘un. Joshua Adam Donaldson was born on December 8, 1985, so he just turned 33 a few days ago. He grew up in Mobile, where he was a pretty good prospect as a shortstop and pitcher; Perfect Game USA ranked him as the 145th best prospect in America.
Then he went to Auburn, where he got a whole lot better, playing third base and catcher; he was an All-Star at catcher in the Cape Cod summer league in 2006, and was ranked a preseason All-American going into 2007. Then the Cubs took him with the 48th overall pick in the first round in 2007… and it just… took… a while.
Only a year after drafting him, the Cubs traded him to the Athletics in a July deal for Rich Harden, as they geared up for a possible playoff run. Harden was great down the stretch but the Cubs got swept in the Division Series. And now Donaldson was in the high minors for the A’s, still mostly catching, but not really thrilling anybody. Heading into the 2011 season, two and a half years into his Oakland career, John Sickels called the 25-year-old a C+ prospect, just 13th-best in their system. He hit for middling averages and while he had good plate discipline he wasn’t hitting for much power.
In 2013, John Sickels wrote a long, useful retrospective on his prospect status which I’ll quote from sparingly, because you should go read the whole thing. (It’s a shame that MinorLeagueBall was shut down a few weeks ago. I hope Sickels gets a new baseball writing job soon.) Here’s Sickels’s narrative:
Donaldson was originally drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the second round out of Auburn in 2007. Highly respected for his bat, he hit .349/.444/.591 with 38 walks and just 27 strikeouts in 215 at-bats in college, then remained excellent in pro ball with a .346/.470/.605 run in 49 games through the Northwest League. He hit for power, hit for average, and controlled the strike zone very well. The main issue was defense: he was very rough behind the plate.
[In 2009,] I wrote the following scouting report after seeing him play for Midland: “Works the count well, but swing looks very level right now and cuts off his home run power. . .swing looks different than when I saw him before…I really like the way he works the count…swing is quick but flat, and most of his power is to the gaps not over the fences.”
In the 2012 book, I wrote:
“Sometimes you just like a guy, and I like Josh Donaldson. He always seems to do something good when I see him play. . .work the count well, hit a home run on a tough pitch, make a nifty defensive play. His Triple-A numbers are nothing special and scouts don’t drool over his tools, but he has some pop in his bat, will draw a few walks, and has worked hard to correct his defensive issues.. . .he’s 26 now, so if (the age 27-28 breaktrough) happens it will be soon. I will stick to my guns for another year.”
As it turns out, he was exactly right. In 2012, the A’s finally moved him out from behind the plate and he finally broke out, annihilating Triple-A pitching and earning the last promotion he’d ever need. And that was right when he started doing what Sickels had hoped for.
In 2013, Donaldson was 27, and it all came together. His hard work had paid off as he was simply good at everything: slick defense, hit for average and power while getting on base and maintaining a very healthy 76/110 BB/K ratio. He finished fourth in the MVP voting in his first full season in the major leagues. And it was no fluke, as he had another excellent season in 2014, though his average dipped and he only finished 8th in the MVP race.
Billy Beane may have figured that it was a good time to sell high on the soon-to-be 29-year-old, so he traded him to Toronto for a boatload of prospects: shortstop Franklin Barreto, pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and the mercurial Brett Lawrie. But Alex Anthopoulos outthunk Beane on this one; Lawrie seemed like he could have been a star but he never put it all together, and while Barreto is still just 22 and could provide years of value to Oakland, the Blue Jays clearly got the better end of the deal.
In 2015, Josh Donaldson had the best year of his life, hitting 41 homers, playing a prime role in leading the Jays to win 10 more games in 2015 than they had in 2014, winning their division for the first time in 22 years — it was their first time making the playoffs since the last time they won the World Series in 1993. For his efforts, Donaldson won the MVP. After one disappointing year, Oakland shipped Lawrie to the White Sox; his one year in Chicago was his last year in the majors.
However, following the Jays’ quick exit from the playoffs, GM Alex Anthopoulos resigned, with many publicly speculating that management was planning to curtail some of his authority by hiring a team president over him. While Donaldson continued to play very well in 2016, finishing fourth in the MVP voting again — the third time in four years that he’d finished in the top four — the new management may not have regarded him with the same affection that Anthopoulos had.
The next year, 2017, was really the first hiccup. A spring training calf injury cost Donaldson a lot of playing time in April and May, but he hit brilliantly when he was healthy, and was still worth five wins in two-thirds of a season.
Of course, that brings us to Donaldson’s miserable 2018, which is pretty much the only reason that he’s a Brave, because if he was fully healthy in 2018 he may well have gotten more money than the Nationals gave Patrick Corbin. SB Nation’s Cleveland blog has a good rundown of the timeline:
April 13, 2018: Donaldson hits the DL again, this time for his right shoulder
May 3, 2018: Donaldson activated from DL again
June 1, 2018: Donaldson hits the DL again, this time for his left calf
June 26, 2018: Donaldson hits a setback
August 30, 2018: Rehab begins
Per a tweet that they mention, Donaldson apparently felt that the Jays mishandled his injury:
It’s clear that the #Bluejays and Donaldson didn’t see eye-to-eye on his injury and recovery. Donaldson told the Sun that during rehab “he completely ruptured his calf” and suffered further damage elsewhere on his leg.
— Rob Longley (@longleysunsport) August 31, 2018
Right at the waiver deadline, Toronto put Donaldson on waivers and ended up trading him to Cleveland. The return was pitifully small, and it turns out that other teams cried foul because Toronto shouldn’t have been able to put Donaldson on waivers if he wasn’t healthy yet, and considering that Cleveland DL’ed him immediately after getting him, he surely wasn’t. Fangraphs’s Sheryl Ring investigated, and it’s a fascinating minutia.
Donaldson lost a tremendous amount of time in 2017 and 2018 due to calf injuries, but when he finally came back to the field in September, his hitting was right in line with his established performance. To wit: here’s what Josh Donaldson’s first five full major league seasons looked like, along with his final two weeks of 2018, following his trade to Cleveland (and ignoring his injury-plagued April and May, before he was shut down for the summer):
A few days into being a 33-year-old, Donaldson is probably not going to be MVP again, and that’s okay. His established level of performance was so high just two years ago that even with a normal decline, he’ll continue to be a very good player for the next couple of years, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could have another All-Star campaign.
The best-case scenario for the Braves is that Donaldson performs so well in 2018 that the Braves have no chance of re-signing him, reestablishing his value as a top-flight free agent and setting himself up for a handsome payday. Austin Riley is clearly close — so close that it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that the Braves could trade Donaldson at the deadline to give Riley a job, if Riley starts hitting like a certain somebody did last year, virtually demanding a promotion to a starting position.
The Braves don’t need Donaldson to be Mr. Right. They just need him to be Mr. Right Now. Truly, I don’t think they could have done any better.