Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson has a legitimate MVP argument. His .305/.386/.506 slash line and strong defense have resulted in a 7.7 WAR, second only behind Mike Trout in the American League. I'm sure the real winner will be either Trout or Miguel Cabrera, but Donaldson has been legitimately excellent this year. He looked trapped in the minors a couple of years ago, so let's examine how he got here.
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. The bat looked excellent to me, so I gave him a Grade B, thinking that he would hit enough to move to another position if necessary.
The transition to full-season ball was difficult in 2008: he hit just .217/.276/.349 in 63 games for Low-A Peoria and continued to struggle defensively. He looked confused at the plate; when I saw him early in the year, it looked like he was trying to hit a grand slam on every pitch and was excessively power conscious.
The Cubs soured on him quickly and he was traded to Oakland that summer in the Rich Harden deal. The change in organizations invigorated his game: he loved the California League, hitting .330/.391/.564 in 47 games for Stockton after the trade. I lowered his rating to a Grade C+ due to the weird season, but noted that his glove was probably going to be a bigger problem than the bat in the long run.
Moved up to Double-A Midland for 2009, Donaldson hit .270/.379/.415 with nine homers, 37 doubles, 80 walks, and 92 strikeouts in 455 at-bats. His defense improved a great deal: he threw out 40% of runners and showed better footwork and blocking ability. The bat was interesting: he worked counts extremely well, but his swing looked more level than when I'd seen him in the past, which was reducing his home run power.
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. . .I rather like Donaldson and I think he still has a chance to tap into his strength and boost the power production. I gave him a Grade B-.
Moved up to Triple-A Sacramento for 2010, Donaldson hit just .238. But he boosted his home run production, knocking 18, while maintaining good plate discipline, showing a 45/79 BB/K ratio in 294 at-bats. Although he hit just .156 in 14 games for Oakland, I was impressed with what I saw in him in the Pacific Coast League. This is what I wrote about him:
Scouts have been waiting for Josh Donaldson to hit more homers, and he did that last year, albeit at the expense of batting average. He retained good plate discipline, and I think he is the kind of hitter who will mosey along slowly at first, but then (one hopes) have a really good season or two in the age 27-28 window. . .he may struggle at first in the majors, but I think that if they are patient, Oakland is going to get a useful player out of him.
Donaldson returned to Sacramento and hit .261/.344/.439 with 17 homers in 2011, splitting time between catcher and third base. He didn't receive a major league trial, but I still liked him. 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 you know, Donaldson had some problems in 2012 adapting to the major leagues while shifting over to third base permanently. He hit just .153 in his first 28 games, but in the second half of the season his bat came alive: he hit .290/.356/.489 after the All Star Break last year. He's maintained that level of production for all of 2013, while playing excellently on defense at third.
So, how did it happen? He's 27 now, the most common year for a big breakthrough. He isn't trying to catch. He always had good strike zone judgment, and finally found the right balance with a swing that can generate both power and average.
The hints were always there that Donaldson could be a productive player; you just had to focus on his good points over his bad ones. My thinking is that 2013 and 2014 will be his career years, but that he'll remain a productive major league hitter well into his 30s.