Donaldson: From untouchable to Toronto

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- He sat back all winter and watched his buddies go streaming out of Oakland: Brandon Moss. Derek Norris. John Jaso. Jeff Samardzija.

A’s today. Gone tomorrow.

And Josh Donaldson knew exactly how they felt.

One day, his old GM, Billy Beane, was telling other teams that Donaldson was untouchable. One snap of the fingers later, he was off to Toronto. Kaboom.

Donaldson never saw it coming. And for a couple of weeks, he said Tuesday, the “shock” of being traded was tough to shake.

But then those other deals began shaking the baseball universe. And as he watched his friends and ex-teammates go careening out of Oakland, one after another, it began to dawn on him: Maybe this wasn’t such a disastrous career move after all.

Asked Tuesday if his trade became easier to accept as he watched those other trades slam a wrecking ball into the group he’d just left, Donaldson replied, bluntly: “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.”

Little did he know, though, that his new GM, Alex Anthopoulos, was practically stalking him for two months to make this deal happen. When other teams were told Donaldson wasn’t available, they moved on to other stuff. When Anthopoulos was told Donaldson wasn’t available, he apparently hung up the phone, exhaled, then called back and asked again.

“We asked about him at the end of the season,” Anthopoulos said Tuesday. “We were adamantly told he wasn’t going to be moved. We asked about him again, I think a little later. We were out in Arizona [at the Arizona Fall League], and the playoffs were still going on, and Billy was adamant he wasn’t going to be moved. And then, I guess, maybe a week before we did the deal, we asked about him again in a conversation, and he again said he wouldn’t move him.

“But it seemed like in passing, one of the issues was, [Beane] wanted to win this year. They weren’t going to necessarily tear it down. They may retool, but he wasn’t going to cause a hole at third base. So I’m the one who introduced [Brett] Lawrie at that point. We weren’t really looking to trade Brett Lawrie, but I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to get Donaldson. But once I introduced Lawrie to fill that hole for him, then he seemed a little more open-minded. And we took it from there.”

So on the final Saturday of November, Donaldson had barely digested his Thanksgiving turkey when his phone started buzzing. And let’s just say it was time for him to make sure his passport was still valid.

But as Lawrie and three prospects were heading west, Donaldson was already learning, from his new GM, that the Blue Jays weren’t trading for him just so he could play third base. They were also trading for him because he approaches baseball with a certain passion that his new team was in serious need of.

“I’m not going to be a big hoorah type of guy,” Donaldson said. “That’s not who I am. But what I am is, I’m going to bring energy. And guys are going to see that I’m very professional about how I go about my business. And at the same time, I’m here for the next guy. I’m not just here for myself.”

Before we go further down this path, we should make it clear that the Blue Jays weren’t just driven by intangibles to make this trade. Donaldson’s tangibles were slightly attractive, too, you might say.

Over the last two seasons, Donaldson was worth 15.4 wins above replacement. Lawrie was worth 3.6. Donaldson missed eight games in those two seasons. Lawrie missed 147. And Lawrie’s two primary stand-ins at third, Juan Francisco and Danny Valencia, totaled 0.8 wins above replacement combined.

Now add in this startling fact: Lawrie may be just 25, with three years of team control remaining -- but Donaldson, even though he turned 29 over the winter, actually comes with four years of team control. So if you were wondering why Anthopoulos was so persistent, uh, never mind.

And as good as Donaldson’s numbers were for Oakland the last two years (53 homers overall and an .840 OPS), he’s moving from the ninth-hardest park to hit a home run in last year -- the O.co Coliseum, where A’s hitters used to joke that “an invisible wall” ate all their long balls, Donaldson quipped -- to the third-easiest, the launch pad at the Rogers Centre. So those numbers could conceivably explode north of the border.

But whatever, says Donaldson: “I’m here about winning. I’m not necessarily about my numbers.”

It’s rare to find a guy with just two-plus years of service time who has that sort of attitude and aura about him. But even back in 2012, when Donaldson had been in the big leagues just a few weeks, his friend and teammate, Jonny Gomes, decided there was something different about him.

“In 2012, Jonny Gomes really took me under his wing,” Donaldson said. “And I know you know about Jonny Gomes. The guy’s a winner. And he really took me under his wing and kind of showed me the way, of how winners play the game.”

The message Gomes delivered was that there was never a day in any season, “even if you went 0-for-4, with four punchouts,” where you couldn’t have some sort of positive impact on the players around you.

“It was [about] really just focusing on your teammates, rather than yourself,” Donaldson said, “because if you get caught up in numbers and stuff like that, you’ll drive yourself crazy. But if you can go out there every day and help your teammate get the job done -- maybe say, 'Hey, this guy just threw me three sliders in a row and I struck out, so be ready for the slider’ -- just something in order to impact your team that day and try to take away something positive every day. That’s really how I try to go about my business.”

And the Blue Jays can use all of that way of doing business they can get. They spent their offseason subtracting as many negative personalities as possible. They also spent their offseason adding star players with the exact opposite personality. Russell Martin was one. Josh Donaldson was the other. And the Blue Jays are already feeling the impact.

“I’ve been here for two days now,” Donaldson said Tuesday. “And I’ve been able to chat with guys, and try to build some relationships, because for me, baseball is not always about driving in runs and [personal] stuff like that. It’s about making that next guy better.”