A's faith in Donaldson's versatility paying off
After conversion to third base, former catcher thriving at plate and in field
ARLINGTON -- Josh Donaldson is a third baseman. The Oakland A's have pretty much ended that debate. Never mind that he began last season as a catcher or that he played virtually every position during his climb through the Minor Leagues.
Actually, he's not just playing third base for the A's. At the moment, he's among the best in the game, his name dotted across the leaderboard with Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado and others.
How's that for All-Star competition? Third basemen entered Monday with four of the top nine spots in baseball-reference.com's Wins Above Replacement rankings. Donaldson has played his way into the conversation, but the American League has so many terrific third basemen that some really good players are going to be left home.
"To even be considered, or even mentioned, that's an honor," Donaldson said. "It's still a long way away. I'm not really looking at it now."
To the people who believed in the 27-year-old Donaldson these last few seasons as he was moving here, there and everywhere, there's not much surprise that he'd make it somewhere.
"He could probably play any position on the field," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "The athletic ability has taken over."
Through Monday, Donaldson was hitting .319 with six home runs and 27 RBIs and was in the top five among AL third basemen in virtually every statistical category. His switch from catcher to third base last season became part of the storybook quality of the A's as they made up a five-game deficit in the AL West in the final two weeks of the regular season.
By the time the A's asked Donaldson to play there, they were pretty much certain he could do it. For a couple of years, they'd marveled at his athleticism, confidence and all of the other gifts that go into making a good baseball player.
Along the way, he got some tutoring from his Triple-A manager, Darren Bush, and A's coach Mike Gallego, special advisor Phil Garner and others.
At some point, they all reported the same assessment to A's general manager Billy Beane: He can handle it.
"He plays the game the right way," Bush said. "He plays the game hard. He just needed to learn the position. He played there a lot in college [at Auburn], so he just needed to learn the speed of the game and the situations and how to be prepared for them. To see him go out there and do it every day, that's nice. He's a good kid. He's determined. He's confident.
"He's grown tremendously as a player and as a person. A lot of guys have put time into him, and he's just now really coming into his own."
In fact, Donaldson's ability to play third so well down the stretch last season had him No. 1 on the A's depth chart at the beginning of Spring Training. Still, he was only a career .232 hitter, so there probably was less confidence about his offense.
"I just think last year I made an adjustment when I went back down to Triple-A, as far as my plate approach was concerned," Donaldson said. "I'm trying to zone pitches in more. I think a lot of it has to do with seeing guys multiple times as well. That helps with the process. It's one of those things where my intensity and my focus have been more in one area -- just trying not to give up an at-bat and understanding the situation of the game."
Donaldson switched from the middle infield to catcher during high school, then went back to third at Auburn. The Cubs took him in the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft and moved him back to catcher. A year later, they dealt him to the A's to get right-hander Rich Harden.
"Even during the Minor Leagues, I was always trying to take ground balls and stuff like that," Donaldson said. "For me, it's not really that surprising. I can definitely see where other people would see it that way. Two years ago, I went down to the Dominican, and all I played was third base."
It's funny how things work out. The A's began last season with Scott Sizemore penciled in at third, and when he got hurt, Donaldson's name kept coming up in their internal discussions.
Now, a little more than a year later, Donaldson's career is finally taking off.
"He's been terrific the whole season, all the way across the board," Melvin said. "Defensively, offensively, big hits -- he's been really good. I don't want to say All-Star caliber, but certainly his numbers would suggest that."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.