Is Josh Donaldson Oakland's best story so far this year? It seems hard to argue otherwise. For a team that perpetually mixes a steady river of fresh faces pouring down from Sacramento with journeymen obtained in winter trades plus the occasional free agent, A's fans have learned to reserve judgment on young players. (All that excitement over Jemile Weeks still smarts.) Then again, maybe the reason Donaldson is the best story this year -- and promises only to get better -- is that expectations hovered so low for him eight months ago that everything he does now seems like magic.
No, it's more than that. He's healing a wound that's been gaping in Oakland, one that A's fans have been praying to have stitched up since 2008.
Going into 2008, Oakland's infield defense was spotty, but the high points were amazingly high. Eric Chavez stood atop a third base bag stuffed with Gold Gloves and Mark Ellis covered second with Papal-like infallibility. Then Eric Chavez began his on-and-off affair with the DL and Oakland's third-base troubles began. In succession, Jack Hannahan, Adam Kennedy, and Kevin Kouzmanoff tried filling those white cleats. They all lacked Chavez's guileless at-bat pop and his defensive wizardry. Chavvy could stand at the plate looking like he's searching the bleachers for a Coliseum dog stand and then crank the next pitch long. Anyone who's witnessed him convert a bobble into a double-play knows he was built for the hot corner. Hannahan, Kennedy, and Kouz were anemic in comparison, on both sides of the plate. All they seemed to do was make A's fans long deeper for the return of Chavvy, a lost cause when he underwent season-ending surgery in 2009 followed by Oakland passing on his contract in 2010.
Fast-forward to 2012. With Chavez fading in Oakland's rearview mirror, the first fresh spark of third-base stability came in the form of Scott Sizemore, who -- as though keenly aware of what A's fan have come to expect each season -- tore a knee ligament on the first day of training in Arizona. That made room for the superb Brandon Inge, who also knew what A's fan have come to expect and underwent his own season-ending surgery in September, leaving the gap at third open once again.
If it sounds like anyone can tryout for third base in Oakland, you're right. Mike Gallego was next in line, and then the water boy, and then I figured I'd give it a go.
The point is, third base has been a sore spot for Oakland for a long, long time. It was through this revolving door that minor-league catcher Josh Donaldson entered. He'd manned third base a measly 79 times in a six-year minor league career of 500 or so games. I know what I thought when I heard our backup catcher's backup catcher was replacing Brandon Inge as our day-to-day third baseman: Uh-oh.
It's an exercise in small sample size, but so far this year Donaldson's performance has been eye-popping. He garnered the AL Player of the Week at the end of April and holds a .303/.387/.487/.874 line constructed from 36 hits (including 11 doubles and 23 RBIs) in 32 games. He went 4 for 4 against Baltimore on April 27th and 3 for 7 in the 19-inning Bataan Death March against the Halos. Oakland has won exactly three games this season without him reaching base. Donaldson can claim three jacks so far, respectable to be sure, but right now I'm rooting for slugging and base-running on a team that can't afford the kind of big bats Los Angeles and Texas stocked up on last winter.
Out on the field, Donaldson currently stands as first in the AL for turned double-plays and putouts at third base, and fifth in the league for assists. On the other hand, he holds second place for errors committed, but that's because he's made a big four of them so far, one less than Mike Moustakas' bigger five. Is it Chavvy's wizardry? No, but nothing to be ashamed of either. I used to wince and flip a coin whenever a line drive headed toward Donaldson. Now I'm ... hopeful.
It's great to see an Oakland name on the fielding leaderboards, but we are talking one month of play, and so on that note the small sample size parade concludes.
Is Josh Donaldson Oakland's best story this year? I go back to that Uh-oh I muttered when Donaldson took Inge's place. That sense of dread came full circle in Game 4 of the ALDS. The Tigers had roughed us up in both games in Detroit. We were facing sudden death at home in a five-game series. Oakland shutout Detroit in Game 3, but as Game 4 marched to the bottom of the ninth, the 2012 Miracle appeared to be expiring with a one-run death rattle against Detroit's three. A Josh Reddick single looked to be the rally-starter we needed -- and up to bat walked our backup catcher's backup catcher, the guy who had spent the last month bobbling grounders at third, Josh Donaldson.
Donaldson crushed one deep to left and reached second standing. On the bag he did what we all were doing: he started jumping up and down, hands high in the air. The pros aren't supposed to make that kind of "unsportsmanlike" display, but who could blame him, and who could blame us? Five years we waited for this.