LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Josh Donaldson wasn’t so much a ballplayer in his first five major league seasons as he was a raging bull, moving fast and breaking things and garnering four consecutive top 10 finishes in American League MVP voting.
He finally broke, and spent his final season before free agency shelved for all but 52 games, betrayed by a calf injury that represented the worst possible outcome as he entered free agency.
At 33, the man who spearheaded four stirring and unlikely playoff runs in Oakland and Toronto does not possess the significant chip on his shoulder that fired his come-up that culminated in the 2015 MVP award.
Yet the Donaldson that the Atlanta Braves are paying $23 million – a record salary for a one-year contract – to play third base and lift them beyond the division title they claimed in 2018 may yet be the best version of himself.
He’s healthy. He’s – of course – highly motivated. And he’s also perhaps grounded by a professional mortality he perhaps never knew existed when he grew into an MVP-caliber player.
“It sucks to be human,” Donaldson said Wednesday before the Braves’ morning workout. “I’m not a robot. Two thousand eighteen was a lost season for me, because of injuries. There were a lot of things going on that I’ve tried to identify, and I’m going to continue to learn from.
“When I was 26, 27 years old, I felt like I could tear a hamstring and be fine. The older you get into the game – I’m not old by any sense of the matter – the more evolved you get into your career, you have to learn how to deal with things better.”
Donaldson certainly handled his first foray in free agency with aplomb. Like many jewels of a vaunted 2018 class that was expected to produce several nine-figure deals, Donaldson entered with a whimper. Oh, he returned from his calf injury in time for a six-game cameo (including playoffs) with the Cleveland Indians.
But with risk aversion the watchword in the industry, Donaldson knew a long-term deal wasn’t in the offing, not after what he calls “a lost season.”
And so when the Atlanta Braves called, there was plenty to like. It didn’t hurt that Donaldson’s first favorite player growing up in Florida and Alabama was Ron Gant, and that his walls were adorned with posters of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
What really helped: That Alex Anthopoulos, the GM who acquired him in Toronto, was willing to make a big, albeit short, bet on Donaldson returning to MVP form.
Oh, no one’s ready to anoint Donaldson as a shoo-in to join the late, great Frank Robinson as players to win MVPs in both leagues. But Anthopoulos doesn’t think it’s folly to expect greatness from Donaldson yet again.
“Only one guy can win the award,” Anthopoulos told USA TODAY Sports. “But I think he’s going to be a high-level player, and I think that’s reflected in the contract we gave him.”
Certainly, Donaldson possesses skills that are in some ways impervious to age. He has a lifetime .367 on-base percentage, peaking at .404 in his 2015 MVP season, when he hit 41 home runs. The former high school wide receiver and defensive back possesses what football types might call a “high motor,” from the field to the clubhouse, where his leadership skills are valued.
“I can tell that the passion, the intensity with which he plays will be second-to-none,” says Braves manager Brian Snitker.
And though no longer hellbent to show he deserves to stick in the major leagues, that intensity in Donaldson’s eyes has not dulled.
“I think I’m always out to prove something,” he says. “I just have a little more to prove this year than in years past.”
The conditions to do so are nearly optimal.
Donaldson was able to work out with greater vigor this winter, and focused on single-leg strength and what he calls “foot impact,” or how his foot engages and impacts the ground when he runs.
A suboptimal gait can imperil the calf, and Donaldson possesses some beastly ones.
“Everything starts from the ground,” he says.
Meanwhile, he has a chance to hit between three-time All-Star Freddie Freeman and reigning Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna Jr. If ever there were a chance to produce what Donaldson calls “a platform year,” well, this might be it.
While Donaldson would welcome a longer-term relationship with the Braves, it’s highly likely he’ll be on the market again come November. He turns 34 in December, an age when some major league front offices are more likely to offer a player a gold watch than a Brinks truck of cash.
Reminded of this reality, the Donaldson that baseball knows and loves returns.
“I don’t listen to them,” he says in measured tones. “I don’t really care for their opinion; I just go off what I feel like.”
And right now, Donaldson feels pretty darn good.