Programming note: For all the day’s sports news, tune in to SportsNet Central tonight and every night at 6, 10:30 p.m. and midnight on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
It was spring training 2012 when Josh Donaldson stashed away his catcher’s gear and began taking grounders at third base.
With Scott Sizemore having suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Oakland A’s needed a quick fix at the position. Donaldson did more than learn third base on the fly. He eventually took ownership of a position that had been a black hole for the A’s since Eric Chavez’s heyday.
Donaldson, 28, will report to spring training next month coming off a 2013 season in which he placed fourth in the American League MVP race. It seems a fresh start at a new position was all that Donaldson required to tap into his considerable talent.
That’s a great development for the A’s. Not only did they uncover an All-Star caliber third baseman, but they can afford to keep him a while. Donaldson isn’t eligible for salary arbitration until next winter, and he won’t hit free agency until after the 2018 season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the A’s try to lock him up with a multi-year contract before that time.
Here’s an overall look at Oakland’s third base situation:
STARRING CAST: Donaldson excelled last season with his bat and glove. In his first full major league campaign, he hit .301 with 24 home runs and a team-high 93 RBI. You have to go back to Chavez’s 2005 season – when he slugged 26 homers and drove in 98 runs – to find an A’s third baseman who provided similar offensive production. Since 2007, when Chavez’s injuries began cutting significantly into his playing time, Oakland employed numerous players at third before Donaldson but none that provided long-term stability (Jack Hannahan, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Adam Kennedy to name just a few …)
Donaldson has a work ethic that suggests he can continue to get better, and his ambition to be considered among the game’s elite is obvious when talking to him.
Can he provide an encore offensively in 2014? That remains to be seen. But consider that last year he hit over .300 in four out of six months during the regular season, and in one of those other months (August), he hit a respectable .283. He uses the opposite field effectively, a trait that can help him avoid long-term slumps.
Donaldson’s athleticism has helped the converted catcher shine defensively since moving to third. True, he played some third base collegiately at Auburn. But learning the position in the majors is an entirely different challenge. He has a strong arm, moves well to his left and right and covers a ton of foul territory. Donaldson ranked fifth among all Major League third basemen last season in FanGraphs.com’s Ultimate Zone Rating – a metric that measures a player’s defensive value.
CAMP COMPETITION: The A’s can use spring training to sort out their best option for spelling Donaldson on occasion. He played in 158 out of 162 regular-season games in 2013, and it figures manager Bob Melvin will try to find him a little more rest this season. Nick Punto, who joined the team as a free agent this winter, is a good defender who has extensive experience playing third.
Acquired last July, Alberto Callaspo is primarily a second baseman for Oakland, but the veteran played mainly third base in his three-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. He’s another option when Donaldson needs time off. Don’t forget Eric Sogard also has experience at third.
As for prospects coming through the farm system, Renato Nunez is worth keeping an eye on. Signed out of Venezuela in 2010 at age 16, Nunez is ranked as the team’s No. 6 overall prospect by scout.com. The A’s like his raw power (19 homers last season for low Single-A Beloit) but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts (136 last season). He also has strides to make defensively after committing a whopping 39 errors in 2013.
PAY ATTENTION TO: Where Donaldson winds up landing in the batting order. He began last season in the lower half of the order before working his way up. He drew starts in seven different slots but spent the final month of the season primarily hitting second. Melvin wanted to get him as many at-bats as possible, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Donaldson hit second or third on Opening Night against Cleveland given the roster’s current makeup. He gives Melvin options considering his potential to both hit for a high average and drive in runs.