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 he didn't face 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.