Jason Donald would probably like to forget about the 2012 season, and not just because he had the misfortune of being hit by one of Justin Verlander‘s 95-mph fastballs. While the Indians were struggling to stay out of last place, Donald was busy having the worst year of his career. Although he started and finished in Cleveland, he was also sent down to Columbus multiple times throughout the season. He had trouble maintaining a place on the major league roster, and his performance suffered because of it.
Over the past few years, the 28-year-old shortstop has diligently learned to play not just his original position, but second, third and even the outfield, hoping to gain a permanent role with the Tribe by making himself more versatile. He’s certainly not an above-average defender, he has a career range factor of 4.30 at shortstop and 4.57 at second base. He’s played only 47 innings in the outfield, but so far, he’s been reliable there as well.
Donald was not productive at all at the plate during this past season. In 135 plate appearances, he hit a meager .206/.246/.282 with two home runs and four stolen bases while struggling with a strikeout rate of nearly 30 percent. He also had a walk rate of under four percent—the second worst on the team among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Needless to say, it was a disappointing follow-up to a 2011 campaign in which he hit .318.
In addition to problems at the plate, Donald also had difficulties in the field. For example, his fielding percentage as a third baseman was only .846 with four errors in just 12 games—although it is a very small sample size, it was obvious that he was struggling to play the position well. Without Casey Kotchman’s stellar glove at first base to catch all of his off-line throws, Donald’s lack of defensive proficiency could be even more of an issue next year.
Since he is out of minor league options, the Indians will need to make a decision this offseason about his future with the team. If he were to be placed on waivers, there is a very good chance that another team would claim him. Donald was a top prospect with the Phillies, including playing in the All-Star Futures game and in the Olympics, and he is inexpensive and relatively young. That makes him a safe bet as a cheap bench player, with the potential to surprise everyone with a better-than-expected season.
As of right now, though, the Indians have an excess amount of utility fielders and will most likely be unable to keep all of them on the major league roster. After seeing his numbers from 2012, it’s hard to imagine that the team should do anything other than immediately get rid of Jason Donald and fill his spot with a contributing player. But he has had success with the team in the past, so is it possible that he deserves another chance next spring?
This is actually the first season that Donald has really struggled as a hitter. During his rookie year in 2010, he was called up in May and played the entire season rest of the season, rather than being sent to Triple-A repeatedly. He hit a respectable .253/.312/.378 with four home runs and five steals in 325 plate appearances.
In 2011, he wasn’t called up until July, but was never sent back to Columbus. He had a great half-season, hitting .318/.364/.402. For someone who is considered replacement-level or a bench player at best, that’s impressive. He did have an extremely high BABIP, at .423, so it’s very likely that his unusually high statistics were just a fluke. But after taking that in consideration, he still had two decent years in a row and has shown that he is capable of contributing a lot more than he did this past season.
In addition to Donald, the Indians also have Brent Lillibridge and Jack Hannahan, along with the recently acquired Mike Aviles. Unless an infield position opens up due to trades, the team will be forced to choose between the four utility players to fill their bench.
Although Aviles is guaranteed a spot, one of the remaining bench jobs should go to Donald due to his success in the past when given the opportunity to play with the team consistently. The Indians would be wise to write 2012 off as a bad year for the young player and move forward with him. He doesn’t need to participate in every game, but he does need to spend a full season in Cleveland. He could be an important part of the Indians’ bench next year, if given the chance.