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Cubs prospect Christian Donahue and why he matters

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Sometimes, good organizations can find players where no one else is looking.

Rebecca Snyder

I catch heat for plenty of things. Nonetheless, I still keep writing about the same topics. Christian Donahue is a player you’re likely unfamiliar with. You will be a bit less unfamiliar with him soon. However, Donahue isn’t the story here. He’s more emblematic of a story. It’s a story I was slow to realize, much as others since have been slow to realize. Or unwilling to realize. Donahue shows the incredible amount of baseball talent available on the college scene.

Donahue was on a very good Oregon State team in 2017. He had been a starter in his early career with the Beavers, but as the team in Corvallis kept adding talent, the middle infielder was pushed aside a bit.

This isn’t a case of a few random players casting aside another unknown player. The chief culprits were Nick Madrigal (selected fourth in the 2018 draft by the White Sox) and Cadyn Grenier (2018 37th overall pick to the Orioles). A middle infielder by development, Donahue’s innings were curtailed greatly in an environment where winning is king, and practice time was limited.

Undrafted in 2017, most would likely presume that Donahue was a bad player. Because, if a player isn’t drafted over 40 rounds, they’re likely at least not good enough to ever be of much value for an MLB organization. Which is the idea that needs half a can of weed killer dumped on it.

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Remember that, first an foremost, college baseball is about winning. On occasion, teams can attempt to “develop” a player. However, as soon as developing said player limits their likelihood to win a game, his value diminishes quickly. Teams have little time at the college level for using a player who isn’t perceived as among the nine or ten best. That Oregon State team churned through the season to a title.

While Donahue played in over half the Beavers games as a junior (44), his offensive numbers were a bit ordinary. He hit .258, and his OPS over a full-season, including Pac-12 play, was .690. A bit ordinary. He certainly wasn’t going to get selected on his hitting. He was a reasonably good baserunner (9-10 steals), but a Billy Hamilton he wasn’t.

He went undrafted. Especially since he had eligibility remaining, he wasn’t a priority choice for anyone. It wasn’t especially a surprise. Looking at his likelihood for playing more as a senior, he decided to sign in August 2017 with the Cubs. That way, he could become a professional athlete/workout junkie at the Cubs facility in Mesa. He could complete his classwork later. Donahue was an afterthought signing.

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After staying behind briefly at Extended Spring Training in Mesa, Donahue was called up to the Midwest League’s South Bend, the lowest of four full-season affiliates in the pipeline. In late June, injuries and call-ups in the Iowa/Chicago rosters created a brief call-up for Donahue to Triple-A. He was 0-for-6 with a run batted in, then returned.

At the lower level, Donahue proved his worth. Playing mostly second, but adding a bit of third and left field, he was tough to keep out of the lineup on a team with sporadic hitting. His .732 OPS in South Bend was better than his OPS as a college junior. Donahue had put in the time, and become a better player.

While most of the big names in the sport are presumed to be “born that good,” an entire level of talent of players are actually quite similar. For those players, it’s how they develop. Or, how they are developed. College baseball has plenty of talented players. A June draft isn’t about “two rounds and a bunch of rubbish.”

The first two rounds of the draft probably are the best players. Not much money is made arguing that. However, if you ask someone paid to know the draft, players 25-60 in a baseball draft are very similar. “Do you prefer power from a hitter, or contact ability?” “Velocity or arsenal?” “Quickness or defense?” “Certainty to the majors, or a bit more upside?” “Pitcher or hitter?”

That is in the first and second rounds. As the draft progresses, the talent gets more similar, not less. While the “crapshoot” mentality still exists, a more viable explanation exists. If you’d go watch a college game between two quality foes, ten or twelve on each team ought to have a valid chance to be drafted.

Some might be in the early rounds. Quite a few will be in the later rounds. And, a few might be quality undrafted players. Because so many teams have so many good players. Getting players that would contribute in your system is a priority. Having coaches capable of developing said talent is equally important.

Recently, Donahue was called up to Myrtle Beach. A player who nobody was willing to draft 14 months ago is getting regular time now in the Carolina League. Plenty of players selected, while Donahue wasn’t, will never sniff the Advanced-A level. Against the tougher competition, Donahue is 5-for-14 with two home runs in early returns. Four of his five hits are for extra bases.

Small sample size alert applies, but Donahue doesn’t appear frightened of the Advanced-A level, which is the new search area for players being sought in exchange for July and August trades the Cubs make.

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Next February and March, while most baseball eyes are squared on the games in MLB parks in Arizona and Florida, much of my attention will wander to college games. Local broadcasters, announcing their team’s games. They’ll be trying to tell me why I should think their center fielder, their third baseman, their starting pitcher, should be someone of interest.

Much more importantly, scouts will be at the same games. The scouts will be checking velocities off the mound, and from the batter’s box. The times down the line. Discovering how good of a kid this guy is.

Tracking the Chicago Cubs might be enough for you. I want more of a landscape view. Yes, the Cubs are a very important part of that picture, but not an entirety. How Donahue does in his career is a piece in a constantly-changing 30,000-piece puzzle. That he was undrafted through 40 rounds isn’t a tale of his quality, or lack thereof. That an undrafted player can zoom to Advanced-A is an indication of how much quality baseball is being played across the country.

Baseball is a better game, for me, than before. More players playing baseball are very good at it. Particularly, players in the Cubs pipeline. The talent has been there before. Many of the scouts are the same. However, the executives making the decisions have changed. As have the facilities and coaches.

That Donahue was a good player has been borne out in his numbers. How good he will be shall be determined into the future. Taylor Davis was undrafted, but reached MLB. Donahue could turn the same trick. Likely, he won’t. However, it gets really hard to fake your way onto an Advanced-A roster.

The Cubs remain a very deep organization. Not because they offer roster sots to non-drafted free agents. They remain a deep system because they aren’t fooled into thinking the baseball universe is a tightly compacted one. Talent, from whatever source, is worth exploring. Players willing to put in the work are often worth signing. Whether you want to admit it or not, baseball has talent aplenty. The tie-breakers are the scouts and coaches.