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11/09/11 11:07 AM EST

Donald gained perspective in trying season

Injuries gave infielder chance to appreciate role in Cleveland

CLEVELAND -- One errant inside fastball changed everything for Jason Donald. Four games into Spring Training, during his ninth plate appearance of the exhibition season, the Indians infielder saw all of his expectations thrown out the window.

"I learned this year that you can never look too far ahead," Donald said. "I'll never plan anything. I'll never say, 'Well, this is probably what's going to happen.'"

Not after that ill-fated heater from Gavin Floyd sailed too far inside, rawhide striking flesh, changing the course of Donald's season. A fractured finger effectively took him out of the running to be Cleveland's starting third baseman. That led to a grueling year that could have left Donald disheartened by the time the season closed.

Instead, the climb back from injury and to the Majors helped Donald appreciate things a little more. It changed his outlook and helped him find success when he was able to step back into the batter's box for Cleveland. Now, it has him looking forward to whatever role might await him when spring returns in 2012.

"This year was probably the most difficult test in my career," Donald said. "The biggest thing is I want to be here. I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of what we're building here. Whatever role I'm given, I'll gladly accept it. I just want to have a chance and an opportunity to play. That's all you can ask for."

The role likely available come Spring Training will be that of a utility man.

When last spring opened, third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall was in need of more seasoning in the Minor Leagues and the slick-fielding Jack Hannahan was in camp on a Minor League contract. There were others in the mix for the vacancy at third, but Donald had a leg up on the pack at the start.

Things are different now.

With Donald out due to the left hand injury, Hannahan earned the Opening Day job. He is eligible for arbitration this winter and could be back in the fold, along with Chisenhall, who showed flashes of his potential in a rookie stint with the Tribe. Donald's other positions -- shortstop and second base -- are occupied by Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, respectively.

Unless Chisenhall begins 2012 back at Triple-A -- a possible scenario -- Donald figures to be a utility option off the bench and not a starter at the hot corner. This offseason, the Indians even tried Donald some in the outfield during instructional league, seeing if his versatility could translate into an even more expanded reserve role.

"We're very happy with the progress he has made," Indians manager Manny Acta said at the end of the season. "It's too bad we haven't seen him enough at third, but I'm comfortable with him at any of those spots.

"Depending on what we do during the offseason, or what decisions we make, he could end up being a very valuable utility infielder for us."

That possibility is fine with Donald.

"Lonnie and Jason have a chance to be stars in this game," Donald said. "I think Asdrubal has established himself as one of the premiere shortstops in the game, without a doubt. ... Those guys should be everyday guys going into next year. I think they've proven themselves this year.

"At the same time, I have to prepare myself. I have to be ready to go when my name is called. But it's not something I really look at too much, just because I never thought this year was going to play out the way it did. I'm very cautious to plan and to look into the future."

By the time the season finished, the 27-year-old Donald found himself in the lineup on a semi-regular basis. Donald filled in at second base when Kipnis was sidelined with a hamstring injury and he received a few starts at shortstop and third. When Donald did play, he shined offensively.

In his 39 games with Cleveland, Donald hit .318 with one homer, six doubles, eight RBIs and 13 runs scored. Along the way, he posted a .364 on-base percentage while spending time in six different spots within the batting order.

Donald's performance allowed him to head into the offseason with his confidence high -- something he thought seemed unlikely only a few months earlier.

"I look back and I never really expected to be here contributing like this," Donald said. "Not that I didn't expect it, but just with everything that happened. How the year went, it was tough to look ahead and to say, 'Yeah, at the end of the year, no problem, I'm going to be in there and getting to play a lot and have some success.'"

After Donald recovered from the left hand injury, there was no spot for him in the Majors. With Hannahan performing well at the time, and veteran Adam Everett still on the roster, the Indians activated Donald from the disabled list on April 29 and optioned him to Triple-A Columbus.

A sprained MCL in his left knee cost Donald more time in June, adding another complication to the infielder's return to Cleveland. Chisenhall was then promoted from the Minors before the end of that same month. Kipnis received his call to the big leagues on July 22.

It was not until July 31, after the Indians traded second baseman Orlando Cabrera to the Giants, that Donald reached the Major Leagues again.

"I felt at some points that I was having to play catchup, and that's what was difficult," Donald said. "There was nothing really consistent about the season until basically the middle of the year. I look back and I think experience I had last season is really what really helped me this year. I could draw on that.

"Being in this environment every day last year I think really helped prepare me for when I came back up here."

And the experience he went through this season has Donald prepared for anything in 2012.

Until spring arrives, Donald plans on enjoying a quiet offseason.

Donald plans on seeing a few concerts. Maybe he'll do some duck hunting.

"Nothing too crazy," he said with a laugh. "This season was crazy enough."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.