“It’s a really big day for him—and the ballclub, really. We’ve been waiting for this day,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “It’s a big step forward.”
Donaldson is under strict orders not to push himself too hard on the basepaths in his first game action of spring. Don’t expect to see him sprinting down the line. But if all goes well Monday, the Blue Jays are hoping for Donaldson to play third base on Wednesday vs. the Detroit Tigers. It won’t be long until he’s playing without restrictions.
Donaldson has yet to appear in a major league game this spring after straining his right calf running sprints early in camp. He hit in three minor league games last week, but took the weekend off from game action as he cleared the final hurdles between him and a return to the big league lineup.
Those tests included running at full speed around the bases and completing a series of fielding drills that measured his ability to explode off his right leg and plant on it when throwing to first base. On Sunday, Blue Jays head trainer George Poulis said Donaldson has passed every test without issue, and that the third baseman is “in unbelievable shape.”
Donaldson’s taken 12 at-bats in minor league games so far, hitting a pair of long home runs and saying he feels “really good at the plate right now.”
“It’s like he hasn’t missed a beat. He’ll go in there and take some of the best BP of anybody,” Gibbons said. “He’s looked great. Now, the key is to start facing a little velocity, really only for timing.”
Donaldson did not run out his balls in play during his minor league appearances, making Monday the first true test of his calf in a live game. He was scheduled to hit and run in minor league games both Saturday and Sunday but opted not to, working out at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin instead. He logged a very long batting practice session Sunday morning, taking far more rounds than he normally would and even batting from the left side of the plate, something he’ll do occasionally to maintain his muscle balance.
The 31-year-old has also been building up his running endurance on an anti-gravity treadmill, which limits the impact of his body weight. He began on the treadmill last Tuesday, running with 50 per cent of his body mass. He worked his way up to 100 per cent on Friday and has remained there since.
There has never been a doubt that Donaldson would be ready to play on opening day, but making his big league spring training debut remains a positive step for the 2015 MVP. He’ll likely play a few games as the team’s designated hitter before being advanced to playing third base.
Donaldson has played at least 155 games every year since his 2013 breakout and has said that he would be playing every day at third base if the regular season began today. The Blue Jays were very cautious with Donaldson’s injury, however, diligently managing his workload throughout March as he recovered. With spring training extended this year due to the World Baseball Classic, there was no sense rushing him.
“He’s handled it well,” Gibbons said. “He’s got a big sense of obligation to his team. He knows they pay him a lot of money to be out there on the field. There’s a lot of guys in the game who wouldn’t be out there sometimes when he is. That’s just who he is.”
An all-star each of the last three seasons, Donaldson hit .284/.404/.549 last year with 37 home runs. He played through several injuries late in the season, which led to a decrease in his power numbers. But Donaldson raised his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate in 2016, and advanced offensive metrics such as weighted runs created plus and weighted on base average suggest Donaldson actually had a better year in 2016 than he did the season prior when he was the American League MVP.