Blue Jays third baseman appreciates 'special year,' but not losing sight of big picture
By Richard Justice
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Unfinished business. Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson has used those two words a lot this spring. He accomplished so much last season, and so did his franchise, that it would be natural to take a moment to soak in the applause.
On the other hand, they didn't finish the deal, and Donaldson doesn't want anyone to lose sight of the big picture and the thing that's really driving him.
"It was a special year for me," he said Tuesday morning. "But at the end of the day, your goal is to win the World Series, and we didn't come up with that goal. Ultimately, that's why you play the game."
This is the thing Donaldson's teammates talk a lot about. How he brings a certain dynamic into the clubhouse and on the field. How he approaches every game as if it might be his last.
"To see how he competes on a daily basis is really special," Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said.
Donaldson's manager saw it, too. Beyond the 41 home runs and the day-to-day defensive excellence at third base, there was something else.
"He had an impact from Day 1 in the clubhouse in really uniting the guys," John Gibbons said. "He brought some toughness to the team -- him and [catcher] Russell [Martin] both. That was instantaneous."
That's one of the common threads running through a lot of great players. For all the things they do that can be measured, there's a long list of contributions that are appreciated only by the people closest to them.
Here's what can be measured: Donaldson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award after a season in which he led the AL with 123 RBIs, 122 runs, 84 extra-base hits, 352 total bases and 20 game-winning RBIs. He also had 41 doubles.
Donaldson did it all while playing with a relentless fire that came to represent the renaissance of a franchise -- last season's postseason appearance was the first in 22 years. When Toronto was on a 42-14 run to take control of the AL East, he put up monster numbers: 16 doubles, 17 homers, two triples, 55 RBIs and a 1.070 OPS.
In this stretch, the Blue Jays averaged a whopping 6.1 runs per game and hit 95 home runs in 56 games. Along the way, they became the first team in history to go from at least eight games out of first after the All-Star break to win their division by at least six games.
Toronto was already a good offensive team when Donaldson was acquired in a trade with Oakland after the 2014 season. To put Donaldson into a lineup with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and then to add Tulowitzki at the Trade Deadline created something special.
"It was very captivating to watch," Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey said. "You kept wondering what was going to happen next. It was one of those deals where you get to the park every day and wonder what we're going to do today -- who is going to hit two home runs today?"
Lots of people saw this coming during Donaldson's five seasons in the A's organization. After acquiring him from the Cubs in 2008, the A's converted him from catcher to third base, which he'd played some at Auburn.
In the beginning, they wondered simply if Donaldson could hold his own there. He'd been on a back diamond about 20 minutes when the A's coaches looked at one another and realized he had a chance to be terrific.
In two seasons as Oakland's third baseman, Donaldson had 68 doubles, 53 home runs and an .840 OPS while playing third base as well as anyone in baseball. And then came the trade to the Blue Jays after the 2014 season.
"Josh had been really good in Oakland, but I think he really got his due last year," Gibbons said. "It's more than what he did on the field. He's a different kind of cat, too. He brought some toughness and intensity to this team. You combine that with the numbers, he was a really, really key guy."
Donaldson shrugs off this kind of talk -- pointing to Bautista and others, to the way the Blue Jays pitched down the stretch and how the whole thing clicked. He doesn't take credit for the chemistry the Blue Jays had, but he appreciates it.
"We did that by going out there and winning games," he said. "When we made the trades [for Tulowitzki, David Price and others], a lot of guys came in here who were ready to win. We were able to put that together. Some people say chemistry is a non-factor. But if you could have seen our clubhouse from the beginning of the season last year to what it was at the end of the season, it was night and day. When you have 25 guys on the same page, that's just fun."
To have been traded twice before his 30th birthday, to have changed positions, and then to get to this point -- two-time All-Star, MVP -- has been an impressive ride.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," Donaldson said. "I'm happy where I'm at today and try not to put too much stock into a lot of stuff. I've got an opportunity to play the game I love and cherish. So I'm never going to take that for granted. There's still a lot of unfinished business to do. But at the same time, with what we did last season, it makes everybody else's goals in here a lot more believable."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.