As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s likely 2012 utility man: Jason Donald.
Background: After being selected but not signed by the then-Anaheim Angels in the 20th round of the 2003 MLB amateur draft (four picks ahead of Daniel Bard), Donald was taken by the Philadelphia Phillies in the third round of the 2006 draft (three slots after Joe Smith and seven ahead of Zach McAllister) out of the University of Arizona. He tore through the lower minors and placed 69th on Baseball America‘s 2009 top prospects list before coming to Cleveland with Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco, and Jason Knapp in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade.
Last year: Originally pencilled in as the Opening Day third baseman, Donald hurt his hand in spring training and lost his spot in the pecking order for promotions. Once healthy he hit well in Triple-A (.310/.397/.448 in 201 plate appearances) but he didn’t join the parent club until July 31. He hit .318/.364/.402, but that was partially a façade; a completely unsustainable .423 BABIP helped to mask worsening plate discipline and power numbers.
Donald hit one home run with 8 RBI, 13 runs scored, and 3 stolen bases in 39 games with the Tribe. The valuation systems had difficulty quantifying how much his performance was worth. Baseball-Reference put Donald at -0.2 wins above replacement, while FanGraphs pegged him at 0.5 WAR and Baseball Prospectus had him at 0.8 WARP—these aren’t small differences considering he played less than a quarter of the season.
Key factor: Defense. Donald has been highly touted for his versatility; his ability to play almost every position on the diamond is the main reason why he would win a spot on the roster. However, it remains to be seen whether or not he can play any position particularly well.
The general scouting report on Donald seemed to be that he has the potential to be a solid, if unspectacular fielder. Yet one of the sabermetric defensive stats are fond of his defense, with UZR estimating that his glove has cost the Indians almost 15 runs compared to an average fielder in his 127-game career. There’s some disparity in the numbers (FRAA has him at just -3.8 runs) and the sample size is far too small to draw any major conclusions, but the general consensus is that he leaves something to be desired in the field—and that matches up pretty well with my own observations.
If he can live up to his potential in the field or start to feel more comfortable as he adjusts to the big leagues, he could be one of the best utility players in the league. But if (as UZR suggests) he really is a sieve in the field, the Indians might actually be better off with Andy LaRoche or Jose Lopez.
There are two distinct schools of thought regarding Donald’s 2012 production. The first, represented by Bill James, RotoChamp, and Steamer, is that he will get his strikeout rate below 21 percent while sustaining a BABIP over .335; the second is that he’ll continue to see strike three in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances while seeing his hit rate dive below even his 2010 mark of .320. If you fall in the former category you see him as a roughly league-average hitter, while in the latter scenario he would clearly be better suited to a bench role.
Note that these WAR projections vary in large part based on playing time—ZIPS projects him for almost three times as many plate appearances as RotoChamp does. Defensively, I estimated Donald as a moderately below-average fielder at second base or third base (a 5 on the scale of 1 to 7, which would also be a 6 for a shortstop), but it’s entirely possible that he dramatically overperforms (or underperforms) that projection.
Best-case scenario: Donald wins the utility spot out of the gate and quickly becomes Manny Acta’s go-to back-up at every position. He sees significant time in the outfield while Grady Sizemore is gone and he gets to start at second, third, or shortstop two or three games a week. As both a cause and an effect of his increased playing time he sees his plate discipline numbers improve and looks more confident in the field.
Worst-case scenario: Donald doesn’t win a place on the Opening Day roster and negative inertia works against him from the get-go. When he finally gets called up he struggles; ZIPS’ projections end up to be optimistic as his walk and strikeout numbers remain stagnant, and being constantly moved around the diamond doesn’t do his glove any favors. Cord Phelps passes him on the depth chart and by the end of the year it’s clear that he doesn’t have much of a future in Cleveland.
Most likely scenario: Donald earns a roster spot and takes over backup duty for Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. Between that and a smattering of appearances at third base, in the outfield, and as a pinch-runner he plays about 70 games. He’s about a league-average hitter and his defense is acceptable—in other words, he’s an unremarkable player but a great asset to have off the bench.