Jays’ Donaldson went from afterthought to elite

Josh Donaldson was playing some Mortal Kombat and watching the Golf Channel in his Alabama man cave Friday when he heard the news: he had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.

“My phone just started exploding and I decided to check it out,” Donaldson recalled. “The first text I see is ‘Blue Jays?’ so I was like ‘yep, I just got traded.’”

Just like that Donaldson became the newest member of the Blue Jays and Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman and Franklin Barreto became property of the Oakland Athletics. It’s the second time Donaldson’s been traded, but while last time he was a prospect in a deal headlined by Rich Harden, this time he’s undeniably the centrepiece.

In the six years since the Chicago Cubs traded Donaldson to Oakland, he has evolved from minor league catcher to MVP candidate thanks to extensive video work and an unexpected opportunity at third base. He’s had to adapt every step of the way.

“There’s no staying the same,” he told reporters on an introductory conference call Saturday. “If you’re not getting better, you’re going to get worse.

“For me I’ve always tried to stay up to date with my body. I’ve always tried to stay focused on my swing, taking ground balls and kind of be a perfectionist to the point to where when I’m out in a game, everything takes place where you don’t have to think about certain things. That’s just how I’ve always been.”

When the Cubs drafted Donaldson in the supplementary first round of the 2007 draft, they expected him to catch. He was athletic enough to reach the big leagues as a catcher three years after being drafted, but he didn’t have a clear role on the Athletics.

By 2011 Donaldson wanted to increase his versatility, so he played third base in winter ball and entered the 2012 season as a hybrid catcher-third baseman. When infielder Scott Sizemore tore his ACL that spring, Donaldson earned the starting role at the hot corner.

“There was definitely a period of adjustment for him, but he’s such a good athlete that it didn’t take too long to get comfortable,” Oakland pro scouting director Dan Feinstein told me in 2013.

Donaldson struggled at the plate and was sent to triple-A, but by the time the Athletics promoted him in August, he had become an impact player capable of defending his new position and contributing at the plate in a big way.

Part of the reason that improvement occurred was Donaldson’s newfound interest in video. In 2012, he reassessed his own swing by looking for players whose body type and swing were comparable to his own. Among the players he studied? Another late bloomer with a powerful right-handed swing: Jose Bautista.

“In some ways it’s almost the same kind of story for us a little bit,” Donaldson said. “He was somewhat of a journeyman major leaguer until he landed in Toronto and I was kind of almost being labeled as a 4A or triple-A guy then started breaking out a little in 2012 toward the end of the season.”

Donaldson estimates that he has watched ‘thousands of hours’ of Bautista swinging over the years. He used those observations to inform his own swing and the results have allowed Donaldson to emerge as one of the game’s top players. He has earned top-10 finishes in AL MVP balloting in each of the last two years, and Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen are the only players with more wins above replacement  during that period (14.1 WAR).

While that level of production is difficult for any player to sustain, Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has plenty of reason to believe in the 28-year-old’s blend of power, patience, defence and durability. Controllable through 2018, Donaldson is much more than a rental. In some ways he is what Lawrie promised to become: a defensive difference-maker who offers power and OBP. Once Donaldson joins Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes and Russell Martin atop Toronto’s batting order, the Blue Jays will have a lineup with plenty of upside.

The Blue Jays still have unanswered questions in left field, at second base and in the bullpen. They’ll remain a flawed team until those issues are addressed, but Donaldson’s conversation with his new GM left him confident in the team’s direction.

“I 100 percent can say they’re trying to win right now and what they’re also trying to do is prepare themselves for the future,” he said.

To acquire Donaldson, the Blue Jays gave up key pieces of their future. Still just 24, Lawrie has the potential to break out at any time. While they don’t project as frontline starters, Nolin and Graveman are the types of MLB-ready arms that GMs covet. And the 18-year-old Barreto established himself as a legit prospect. The Blue Jays gave up talent here, but doing so allowed them to improve their big league roster for the foreseeable future.

Donaldson’s visits to Toronto left him with the impression that it’s a ‘great place’ – a melting pot of a city with a little bit of everything. He describes Toronto’s artificial playing surface as a ‘non-issue’ as long as he wears different cleats for hitting and fielding. Rogers Centre struck him as a fun, hitter-friendly place to play with loud fans. And as a bonus, he likes the Blue Jays’ gear.

“I’ll tell you what, those uniforms are pretty sexy,” he said.

Most importantly, the team playing there has the makings of a contender.

“You start looking at the capability of this lineup and the potential that it brings,” he said. “I’d venture to say that there’s probably not going to be another lineup as potent as this in Major League Baseball.”