It's rare to see a player break out as a 27-year-old in his first full major league season, but that's exactly what Josh Donaldson did last year. Finally getting a shot with the A's from Opening Day on, Donaldson took advantage, hitting .301/.384/.499 with 24 homers and 93 RBI. He ended the season as the No. 31 overall fantasy player and No. 5 third baseman, helping Oakland to its second straight AL West crown.
As is the case with any breakout star, especially one who didn't show much in the majors until his late 20s, there is some doubt as to whether Donaldson can keep it going this year. The seventh installment of our Burning Questions series delves into that very topic, exploring what fantasy owners can count on Donaldson bringing to the table this year.
Let's start with the good. Donaldson's power isn't a mirage. A first-round pick of the Cubs in 2007, he developed into a solid masher in the latter stages of his minor league career. He hit 18 homers at Triple-A Sacramento in 2010, 17 in 2011 and 13 in just 51 games in 2012 before getting called up to the majors. He hit nine bombs with the A's that year in fewer than 300 plate appearances, and then those 24 last season. In the last four seasons, Donaldson has been nothing if not a reliable power hitter.
His average true home run distance of 391.3 feet was the 11th shortest among players with at least 18 round-trippers. ESPN's home run tracker classified 13 of his jacks as having just enough to leave the yard. Those feel like red flags, and they are to a certain degree. To be fair, a handful of those were because of the cavernous dimensions at O.co Coliseum. Eight of his 13 "just enoughs" were at home and traveled at least 380 feet. Those may have barely cleared the fences, but they were not cheap by any stretch of the imagination.
If fantasy owners are looking to poke holes in Donaldson's 2014 case, they should start with last year's batting average. Even as he was powering his way through the minors, he never hit for good average. In fact, outside of one season at High-A Stockton, where he hit .330, he never had a batting average better than .270 in a full season in the minors. In his half season with the A's in 2012, he hit just .241/.289/.398. Last year's slash line stands out as a serious anomaly when compared with the rest of his professional career. It's also what turned him into a fantasy stud. Hitting mid-20s homers is great, but it alone doesn't make someone a top-40 fantasy player. If Donaldson is going to be in that class again, he'll have to at least approach the rates he put up last season.
Donaldson's batted-ball profile doesn't quite support him amassing a .301 batting average. He had a 20.6 percent line-drive rate, 43.8 percent ground ball rate and 35.6 percent fly-ball rate. He also popped out 20 times, a total only 25 players in the majors reached. He had a .333 BABIP, but his xBABIP was .324. If we give him that .324 BABIP and ding his batting average by the same ratio, 2.7 percent, he ends up hitting .293 last year. That's still pretty darn good.
On the plus side, Donaldson cut his strikeout rate to 16.5 percent and walked more than 11 percent of the time. He showed a remarkable eye, swinging at 27.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, which ranked just outside the top 40. Even if Donaldson's batting average comes down this year, his patience is a huge asset in OBP leagues. One final item of note is that he will hit second this year after the A's had success with him in that slot for most of the final month last season. He'll likely end up trading in some of 2013's RBI for runs in 2014.
At 28, Donaldson is right in the middle of his theoretical prime. He has always been able to put up strong power numbers, and even if last year's batting average comes down a bit, we have reason to believe that he can still hit in the .280s. He's the No. 6 third baseman on my board, trailing only the elite at the position.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?