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To Donaldson, a ring for Toronto is ultimate goal

MLB.com @RichardJustice

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson is asked about his statistics or personal goals, he almost always steers the conversation back to one thing.

"I'm very proud of this organization and our team," he said. "But there's still unfinished business. I want a ring. Plain and simple."

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson is asked about his statistics or personal goals, he almost always steers the conversation back to one thing.

"I'm very proud of this organization and our team," he said. "But there's still unfinished business. I want a ring. Plain and simple."

That's pretty much the last unchecked box after two seasons in which Donaldson has established himself as one of baseball's best players. In the end, though, it's about finishing the deal.

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"That's what it comes down to," Donaldson said. "You get measured by championships. I'm lacking that right now. Selfishly, I want that. But for this team and this organization, I think it deserves it."

Donaldson's 16.3 Wins Above Replacement are second in baseball during his two Toronto seasons, trailing only Mike Trout (18.3). He has made the American League All-Star team for three consecutive years, and he has averaged 35 doubles, 33 home runs and an .893 OPS over the past four.

Video: Top 10 Right Now: Donaldson ranks first at third base

Still, this one thing eats at Donaldson. The Blue Jays have been to the AL Championship Series the past two seasons, losing to the Royals in 2015 and to the Indians in '16.

That's close enough to taste it and feel it. In that time, they've revived baseball in Canada and are again selling out Rogers Centre -- leading the AL in attendance at 3.39 million last season.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said everything changed for the franchise two springs ago when Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin arrived.

"Because of their attitude and the way they played the game," he said. "We added to it -- Troy Tulowitzki (acquired midseason 2015) is the same type; different personality, but same mentality.

"We've been real conscious to add that type of personality, but it really started with those two. They've been huge for this organization."

Video: Chisholm taps Donaldson as Blue Jays star for 2017

Think Donaldson is driven? He flew to the Toronto spring complex a week after the ALCS last fall and began preparing for this season.

Donaldson played in pain -- hips, shoulders and body -- down the stretch last season. He kept playing and declined to even discuss his condition.

"If I'm out there, there's no need to discuss," he said. "It would sound like an excuse."

But that pain spurred Donaldson to a long offseason of work on his core strength and flexibility. He arrived at this camp looking like a guy ready to win another Most Valuable Player Award, if not a World Series.

"I feel great," he said. "I feel stronger than ever right now. I feel very close."

Donaldson tweaked a calf muscle early in Spring Training and is still a couple of days from playing in a Grapefruit League game. But he's taking round after round of batting practice, and he launched one moon ball home run that had teammates buzzing on Friday.

"He's the ultimate gamer," Gibbons said. "He's a different cat. He keeps the guys loose. But when the game starts, he's all business. I've never seen anybody that can turn that switch like that [snaps fingers] when it's game time. He really turns into a different animal; very focused, very intense. Obviously, very productive."

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Donaldson's journey has been -- this is his word -- surreal. He was a catcher and third baseman at Auburn University, but when the Cubs used the 48th pick of the 2007 Draft on him, they envisioned him catching.

When the Athletics traded for Donaldson after the 2014 season, they asked Minor League coaches to hit him a few ground balls and see if he could still play third.

The A's decided Donaldson had the actions and reactions to be a really good third baseman. He has been one of baseball's best defensive players since then, one of those players who impacts games in a variety of ways.

And then when the Blue Jays acquired him two years ago, Donaldson kept going.

"The nice thing for a lot of us is understanding his journey to becoming great," Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar said. "When you get to play with an MVP, you get a front-row seat to greatness, and that's what we've been able to experience."

The Blue Jays are different in 2017. Gone are designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and his 42 home runs.

Toronto signed free agent Kendrys Morales to take those DH at-bats, and added veteran Steve Pearce to get at-bats at first base and in the outfield.

It probably won't replace Encarnacion's production, but with the core of the AL's best rotation back and Roberto Osuna anchoring a solid bullpen, the Blue Jays could be back in the playoffs for a third consecutive October.

"I like the makeup," Donaldson said. "The first month of the season is when the team is really going to be able to mesh together, and grind together, and start going through the battles. That's when the new faces will contribute and start to feel part of this team.

"It's difficult to replace a guy like Edwin Encarnacion. Great hitter. Great player. Great teammate. At the same time, I've played against Morales for awhile now, and I know the type of professional hitter he is."

Along the way, Donaldson has fallen in love with Toronto and with the vibe of having 42,000 fans at every home game.

"I think our fans appreciate the team we're putting out there," he said. "We're not just representing Toronto. We're representing Canada."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Toronto Blue Jays, Josh Donaldson