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40 in 40: Donovan Walton

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Walton only has an outside chance of making the opening day roster. But, we’ll probably see him again at some point in 2021, so let’s get to know him a little better.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Donovan Walton has played 12 games in the major leagues.

This is nothing to sniff at. Simply making it to the major leagues is something the vast majority of baseball players never do.

It just hasn’t given us much time to get acquainted with him. He’s never been a top prospect for the Mariners. His highest ranking was #23 in the Mariners system from Baseball America in 2018. We were first introduced to him as Donnie Walton, a prospect who looks like he’s from Brockton, Massachusetts with a name that sounds like he was a member of New Kids on the Block.

Turns out, he is not a member of a pioneering boy band, nor is he from New England. He was born in Texas and graduated high school in Oklahoma. Since we don’t know much about Walton, and because I am a fan of Fun Facts, I thought we’d run through some interesting things about young Donovan.

That which we call a rose

First off, he changed his official name to Donovan to make his grandmother happy (awww). Last year he talked about it with Keaton Gillogly of the Modesto Nuts:

His family is important to him

He is also close with his grandmother (note: I’m not sure if this is the same grandma from the above, or his other grandma). She is from Scotland, and after moving to New Jersey became a Yankees fan. On a visit back east as a kid, Donovan went to Shea Stadium. He loved it so much he became a Mets fan. Despite his suspect baseball allegiance, he still called his Yankee fan grandmother before every game.

Third time’s a charm

Donovan was drafted 3 times. The first time was out of high school in the 36th round by his favorites, the New York Mets. He opted to go to college at Oklahoma State University instead. After his junior year he was drafted again, this time by Milwaukee Brewers in the 23rd round. Again, he opted to continue matriculating. When the Mariners took him in the 5th round of the 2016 draft, he began his professional career.

Hangin’ Tough

Donovan is a quintessential utility infielder. His experience is mainly in the middle infield, but he can also take over at third in a pinch. He’s not afraid to steal a base, he’s got some pluck, and he’s going to put everything he has into every play.

Family affair

He’s got the genetics for sports. His dad played minor league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization. His grandfather was a World Cup soccer player in Scotland. His dad, Rob, has been coaching at the college level for most of Donovan’s life. Rob was the pitching coach at Oklahoma State when Donovan played there, and Rob’s position there influenced him to choose that school.

Young Donovan spent his childhood hanging out on baseball fields with his dad. He often served as a bat boy, spending his formative years with college baseball players and cementing his dream of becoming one himself.

Making the bigs

He made his major league debut on September 10th, 2019 and became the 65th player to appear in a game that season for the Mariners. It may have been a dubious distinction, but the September call up from the AA Arkansas Travelers was no less thrilling for him. He told the Mariners Magazine when he found out he was going to Seattle, he “dropped to the ground and everyone went crazy. I started to cry as the entire team decided to pile on top of me. Finding out I was going to the Big Leagues along with Kyle, Justin and Art was probably one of the best moments of my life.”

Why not both?

Growing up, Donovan’s favorite player was the switch-hitting third baseman for Atlanta, Chipper Jones. Like Jones, Donovan was a switch hitter. He began when he was 7 years old and continued through the first season of his professional career with the Mariners. Now, he exclusively bats left-handed.

You’ve got the brawn, I’ve got the brains

At 5’10” and 185 pounds, Donovan is on the small side for a professional athlete. What he lacks in natural heft, he makes up for with smarts. Mariners manager Scott Servais said after the 2019 season, “He’s not going to wow you with any particular tool, other than what is between his ears...the IQ is really, really high.”

So what does the outlook for 2021 look like?

Donovan certainly isn’t going to be the Mariners’ second baseman or shortstop of the future, or the present for that matter. But it’s not unreasonable to see him as a reliable utility player. The problem with his ceiling is that the Mariners have a whole consortium of players who are good enough to play in the major leagues, but not quite good enough to earn an everyday spot. This spring, he will be battling a handful of players for just a couple roster spots. With Dylan Moore potentially moving into the starting second base job, Donovan will be trying to beat out Shed Long and Sam Haggerty as a utility infielder, and further fighting extra outfielders Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, and José Marmolejos to show his value to the Mariners and gain a roster spot.

The outlook now is that he’ll start the season in AAA Tacoma, unless he comes into spring and blows the cover off the ball. There is little doubt that he’ll make an appearance in Seattle this season. He’ll be one of the first calls should the Mariners need help in the infield at some point this season, which give he vagaries of the major league season, is nearly guaranteed.

The Hurdy Gurdy man

Although the name Donnie Walton sounds like it belongs in New Kids on the Block, the name Donovan makes me think of the Scottish singer-songwriter by the actual same name, so let’s have a musical interlude here:

Do I recognize you from somewhere?

The player Donovan is most often compared to is Willie Bloomquist. This is a good thing—Willie played 14 seasons of major league baseball and, among some fans, a well-loved Mariner. It’s also kind of a bad thing—Bloomquist was an aggressively replacement level player. Despite playing 14 seasons, he earned a grand total of 1.0 fWAR and is, among some fans, a well-mocked Mariner.

That is not at all to insult our friend Willie. It’s just a fair appraisal of where Donovan is expected to fall.

The baseball gods both giveth and taketh away, and sometimes giveth again

Baseball is a sport that demands, and demands. It’s a relentless schedule. It’s a game that’s played by, mostly just standing around, only to burst into action with no warning. It’s a grind that not every player can sustain. Donovan’s ascent to the major leagues is more than a guy with talent making it to the top. He knows exactly how easily it can all be taken away.

His dad, Rob Walton, was once a 19 year old pitcher who hurled 95 mph fastballs across the plate. He could command his pitches, and he showed the same baseball IQ his son would years in the future. Rob’s career was derailed once after doctors found a tumor under his shoulder blade. It was derailed again, after he was promised his major league promotion. In the last game he was scheduled to pitch in the minor leagues, his rotator cuff tore along with his baseball dreams.

Rob eventually began coaching and put himself into making other kids’ dreams come true, including his son. When Donovan was called up to Seattle he told his dad, “We did it.”

It’s a major award!

It would be a mistake to think that because his ceiling isn’t high, Donovan has wallowed in total obscurity. He has actually managed to rack up a few awards. He was a mid-season All-Star in the Northwest League, Cal League, and Texas League. He is a 3-time Mariners organization All-Star. He won an MiLB Gold Glove for his work at shortstop for the Arkansas Travelers in 2019.

Also in 2019, he won the Dan Wilson Minor League Community Service Award for “participating in numerous community events, youth baseball camps, speaking appearances and autograph sessions. He made visits to the local Ronald McDonald House, Boy and Girls Clubs and visited elementary classrooms to read with children. He also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, helped organize food, toy and clothing drives and collected equipment to be sent to the Dominican Republic.”

I’m sorry for bring this up

Donovan is the 21st Mariner to don the number 31. It was most infamously worn by former “relief” pitcher Bobby Ayala.

*****

Now, you know a little more about the Mariners’ plucky infield utility prospect. If his bat finds a way to click with major league pitching, this newfound knowledge will come in handy.