Darnell McDonald can be something of a forgotten man in Boston on occasion. He has been a bench outfielder, but one pressed into action by injuries, and he hasn't been given much of a chance to shine in his area of expertise -- hitting lefties -- due to the fact he was needed against the right-handers who beat him during these all hands on deck moments. Playing out of his role has reduced our appreciation for him, to the point where there are those who wanted him to be ditched from the roster every time a 40-man move needed to be made.
That undercuts what he's capable of, though. He's not a great defensive outfielder, but outside of center, he can hold his own when he lines up out there. He's a solid baserunner on a team that generally lacks that kind of player. He might not be able to hit right-handed pitching consistently, but he'll take out lefties at a well above-average rate when given the chance.
It also is surprising for a player who was once highly-regarded. Darnell McDonald was a first-round draft pick back in 1997, when he was 18 years old. He was a top 100 prospect -- twice -- before the decade turned over. He was rated Baltimore's second-best prospect back in 2003, after hitting .299/.366/.445 across Double- and Triple-A as a 23-year-old in 2002. Baseball America had a lot of love for the talented athlete that year:
McDonald has as much athleticism as you could hope for. He translated that into performance when he started to understand hitting and the strike zone, showing patience, getting leverage in his swing and using all fields.
Baseball America goes on to explain the reasons why he might not turn out to be worth the first-round selection and $1.9 million bonus, though:
McDonald can run and steal bases, but it's not clear he has enough speed to play center field in the big leagues. His power, while improved, also might be short for a corner outfielder. He'll need to improve in one area or the other to be an everyday player.
Baseball America nailed the problems. It's nine years later, and McDonald can handle center in a pinch, but you don't want him there all the time. And unless there is a lefty starter on the mound, he doesn't have the pop to man right field. Left field is the place that suits him best with the Red Sox, given the monster cuts down on the necessary range and offensive expectations are closer to those of center than right, but not at the expense of (non-2011) Carl Crawford.
As long as he's utilized appropriately, that still makes him a useful big leaguer. Injuries derailed his progress in 2003, when he underwent exploratory shoulder surgery, and his brief, 34 plate appearance stint in the majors in 2004 was the only taste he got of that level until 2007 with the Twins, when they used him even less -- he never got much of a chance to break into the majors, with his good-but-not-great minor league campaigns causing him to be passed over by younger prospects and depth signings. The Red Sox have used him more than anyone, and haven't stashed him at Triple-A unlike everyone else.
We don't like to think about it, but what happened to McDonald could just as easily happen to any of the Red Sox prospects you've already mapped out entire successful careers for in your head. We always like to think of how, if a prospect fixes that hitch in his swing, or gets better command of that third pitch, that everything will turn out okay. It's why we cling to those moments -- the ones where Alex Hassan remembers to use his legs and subsequently crushes the ball, or when Drake Britton remembers how to sequence pitches and command them -- because they are the purest form of the perfect future we've built up for players who haven't even faced their most difficult challenges yet.
These players were noticed and ranked highly for a reason, after all, so things will work themselves out, right?That's not always the case, though. It's why we should appreciate the service someone like Jason Parks provides, where he asks the tough question -- what could go wrong? -- that many others seem to forget is even worth asking. Darnell McDonald had his weaknesses like any prospect, and he was ranked in the top 100 twice (the top 25 once). Xander Bogaerts might seem like a wonderful and young athletic specimen with power right now, but that youth also means there's time for his problems to go unsolved and subsequently increase in importance, as McDonald's did.
Darnell McDonald's career is the reminder on this team that all the positive rankings in the world don't mean a thing sometimes. He's a solid player, but he had the potential to be more. There's a lot more of that in the game than guys who worked out exactly as everyone planned for them to.