There's no getting around it, third base in Oakland has not exactly been a fantasy hotbed since Eric Chavez went the way of the Betamax. Over the past five seasons, 15 players have manned the hot corner, with none playing more than 200 games at the position. Here's the full list: Jack Hannahan, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Adam Kennedy, Scott Sizemore, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Inge, Eric Sogard, Eric Chavez, Donnie Murphy, Andy LaRoche, Steve Tolleson, Jeff Baisley, Akinori Iwamura, Brooks Conrad, Luke Hughes. As Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would say, it's a who's who of who cares.
So it should surprise no one that Oakland is going into the 2013 with a big question mark at the position. The leader in the clubhouse is former catcher Josh Donaldson, who is a 27 year old with a career .666 OPS. So why is a team coming off a playoff berth, and expecting to compete for one again, counting on Donaldson to be a starter for them? It's a healthy combination of recency and promise.
Before we go any further, let's take a step back and see who Josh Donaldson was supposed to be. He was drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2007 draft by the Chicago Cubs as a catcher, where he was supposed to be an offensive catcher who needed some work to stay at the position. Here's an excerpt from Baseball America's report on him from after the 2007 season (when he put up a 1.075 OPS in the Northwest League):
After signing for $652,500, he rated as the short-season Northwest League's top position prospect. Donaldson provides more offense and athleticism than most catchers. He's aggressive and looks to pull pitches for power early in counts, but can shorten his stroke and use the opposite field. He controls the strike zone and projects as a .280 hitter with 15-20 homers a season. He has slightly above-average arm strength and threw out 38 percent of basestealers in his pro debut. His speed is average. His inexperience shows behind the plate, though the Cubs believe he'll become a solid defender.
Well, he never quite became a solid defender behind the plate, but his arm was certainly strong enough for a move to 3B. After coming over to the A's in the RIch Harden trade back in 2008, he steadily climbed through the minors with diminishing acclaim. The reports on him were essentially the same: power potential and a decent approach, but needs to tone down his aggressiveness and work on his receiving.
Heading into 2012, he had still showed some power potential of late, hitting 35 HR in 738 AB in Triple-A between 2010 and 2011 -- but, then again, it was the PCL, which is a high-octane offensive environment. However, something changed during the 2012 season. He started the season in Oakland and was failing amazingly. Before being demoted to Triple-A on April 19, he was hitting .094/.094/.094 with a 13/0 K-BB rate in 32 AB. But when he raked in Triple-A, he got another shot in May, during which he hit .182/.191/.303 with a 13/1 K-BB rate in 66 AB. Better, but still not good.
However, while he was terrible at the major league level, in 209 Triple-A at bats last season, Donaldson hit .335/.402/.598 with 13 HR and 45 RBI. The most important change for him was in his contact ability. Donaldson had now lowered his Triple-A K-rate from 22.3% to 19.9% to 14.5% between 2010 and 2012. It's also unlikely a coincidence that his best offensive performance came during the first season he played more games away from catcher than at the position.
Because of how dreadfully thin the A's are at the position organizationally, Donaldson got a third (and potentially final) chance in August after Brandon Inge hurt his shoulder. All Donaldson did the rest of the season was hit .290/.356/.489 with 8 HR, 26 RBI, 3 SB and a 35-13 K/BB rate in 176 AB. He essentially became the hitter that scouts thought he could be coming out of college. Now, it's never a good idea to trust September stats too much, but Donaldson did much of that damage in August, with a 1.033 OPS for the month. It's a great story of perseverance and redemption, but what does it mean for Donaldson going forward?
The answer lies in whether he can maintain the contact ability he showed in 2012. From May 13th to the end of the season, Donaldson had an 18.3% strikeout rate. If he can maintain that into 2013, the party can continue and he can be a very solid AL-only and deep mixed option. If not, he'll likely turn into a pumpkin and end up back in Sacramento before long. For me, I think the step forward he took was mostly real and he's a worthwhile flier on draft day.
My 2013 prediction for Josh Donaldson: .263 AVG, 17 HR, 68 RBI, 55 R, 6 SB in 470 AB.