Twins

Impact Talent Acquired: Josh Donaldson Lands with Twins on Record-Breaking Free-Agent Contract

Please Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Quite frankly, fans were sick of hearing about it.

The Minnesota Twins had put forth the notion directly — and indirectly — that they’d planned to add impact talent this offseason.

Well, “impact pitching” was perhaps the exact quote, but when the price goes up on lemons, you pivot and make the best damn limeade money can buy.

It was hard to keep the faith as a forward-facing writer and analyst tasked with covering the team. The situation felt different, but it was hard to put it into terms that would resonate with the weather-beaten fans who have seen their worst fears come to life in recent seasons.

  1. The team lost in three straight to the New York Yankees in the 2019 playoffs for what felt like the 1,000th time in a row
  2. Prior to that, the team lost 726 games between 2011 and 2018 — more than any MLB team
  3. Prior to that, the team lost the 2010 American League Division Series in three straight games — to the same damn Yankees

So why the faith?

Honestly, I don’t really know. It just felt different, you know? The front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine was tasked with turning around a ship which had been commandeered by Terry Ryan and his close associates for nearly 25 years, and turned that 100-loss team into a 100-win iteration in the span of three offseasons.

There were some bumps along the way. There always are. But they remained steadfast in their approach. Build a winning culture. Invest in player development. Find hacks along the way to train smarter rather than harder. Few things typified that last approach more than manager Rocco Baldelli, who encouraged players to rest when necessary and not always push their nose to the grindstone when the 162-game season is already enough of a grind as is.

In the interest of full disclosure, a lot of those pieces were in place. The 2009 core of international free agency provided massive dividends in the team’s record-breaking 2019 season. Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler all had career years — or close to it — and all were signed to extensions in the span of about 10 months.

Falvey and Levine inherited a balance sheet that was aided by Ryan’s mostly conservative view in free agency, but they added their own spin to it as well. Signing players like Logan Morrison and Lance Lynn to one-year deals didn’t work out, but that didn’t deter them from picking up other players on one-year deals (Sergio Romo, Alex Avila, Tyler Clippard) nor did it deter them from scooping up assets the rest of the league, for some reason, didn’t value as expected (Marwin Gonzalez) late in free agency.

It was almost a Joe Mauer-like discipline to their goal. That is, building a sustainable winner but doing so with budgetary….let’s call it restraint.

Prior to Sano finalizing his extension with the Twins, the club had somewhere in the vicinity of $50 million in hard-committed total future salary expenditures on their budget sheet from 2021 on.

Total. 

It was three years of Kepler salaries plus a possible 2024 buyout, three years of Polanco salaries, Michael Pineda‘s second season of his two-year deal and the buyout of Romo’s second year.

My back-of-the-napkin math put that at something like $50.333 million — or less than the Chicago White Sox gave Dallas Keuchel this winter. Yes, just that one player.

So from a budgetary standpoint, why not shake it up? From a talent standpoint, why not try to get better from winning more than 100 games but none in the playoffs? Why not add that superstar the team seemed to so desperately need?

And again, it’s easy to see why fans did not have faith that would happen. The team had never handed out a larger free-agent contract than the one Ervin Santana signed five years ago which paid him $55 million.

And when all the “impact” pitching was snapped up in free agency, those grumbles grew louder.

But MLB isn’t a copycat league. You can win with pitching. You can win with hitting.

Or as we saw in October, you can lose with both — as Houston did.

Insisting there is only one way to win is an easy way to convince yourself you’ll never compete. To lack the imagination necessary to compete against the deeper pockets of coastal teams in larger markets with better weather and more favorable tax laws. The Twins can’t go toe-to-toe with the starting staff of the Yankees, can they? Heck, maybe not even the Washington Nationals.

Would you believe the Nationals had a higher ERA than the Twins last year? Look it up.

My point isn’t that the Twins have better top-end pitching than the Nationals. No. What I’m saying is the name of the game is to build the best team you can with the resources you have and let the chips fall where they may.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have compiled some of the most talented teams we’ve ever seen in this game over the last decade. They won the most regular-season games between 2011-19. And all they have to show for it was a big 0-fer in October.

And that’s where this Twins front office comes into play. They read and reacted to the market the last few years. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But it put them in a position where they could announce that they’ve landed their biggest prize yet — third baseman Josh Donaldson, which came to fruition on Tuesday night.

Oh dear, perhaps we’ve buried the lede a little bit. Yeah, the Twins locked down the Bringer of Rain on a four-year deal worth $84 million. An $8 million buyout on the fifth-year option brings the total guaranteed value to $92 million, and if the option is exercised the value of the deal would bring it to the $100 million mark.

That’s a mark only Mauer has seen in Twins history. And if it happens, you can be damn sure the Twins will be glad it did.

So no, while Donaldson cAn’T PiTcH, he brings a lot to the table that will help the Twins in 2020 and onward.

What are those things? I’m glad you asked:

Defense

The video above is a great lesson in what Donaldson can provide to a team across the board, but the first few highlights are on defense — which can tend to fall by the wayside when considering a player of this caliber. Donaldson is very good defensively at third base, and it’s not just on the surface that he’ll provide massive value.

There’s no denying that infield defense was not among the team’s strengths in 2019. MLB.com’s Statcast just recently released their “outs above average” leaderboard for the infield, and it’s cover-your-eyes bad for the Twins from this past season.

  • First base – C.J. Cron: +1 (99th among 218 qualifiers)
  • Second base – Jonathan Schoop: +5 (31st)
  • Second base – Luis Arraez: -6 (206th)
  • Shortstop – Polanco: -16 (217th)
  • Third base – Gonzalez: +7 (19th)
  • Third base – Sano: -5 (194th)

It’s not hard to see where this is going, right? Almost all of the positives are now Detroit Tigers.

Anyway, Donaldson was just a touch better at third base than Gonzalez at plus-8, but that’s a 13-run swing at third base — and maybe more when considering a lot of Marwin’s time over there was covering for Sano missing the first part of the season with the laceration on his heel.

It’s possible a full season of Sano at third base would have been as powerful on the negative side as Donaldson would be on the plus side.

Now, of course, there’s no guarantee that Sano takes to first base like Mauer did — or even as well as Cron performed over there — but the improvement at third base alone makes the move worth it.

For what it’s worth, Donaldson has never graded in the red in Fangraphs’ defensive metrics, either — at least not outside of a brief rookie cup of coffee in 2010.

Besides, it’s not that hard to play first base in the big leagues. Tell ’em, Wash:

Offense

Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way first. Donaldson was the AL MVP in 2015, and finished in the top five in 2013 and 2016. This past year, he was 11th in NL MVP balloting, and he appeared on ballots in 2017 and 2014.

That’s a lot of years of MVP-related relevance!

WAR is an imperfect measure, but it’s about the best we have right now. Since Donaldson’s breakout 2013 campaign, he’s been worth 40.6 wins according to Fangraphs. Just one MLB position player has been worth more in that time frame, and you can just about guess who that is. Here’s a hint — he’s actually been worth TWENTY-TWO more wins over that time frame and is the best player in the world.

It’s pretty difficult to overstate what kind of hitter Donaldson has been. He’s hit .273/.369/.509 over just over 1,000 games, and that comes out to a 139 wRC+.

Here’s a list of MLB hitters with their career wRC+ figures:

…and really, Donaldson does pretty much everything one could want as a hitter. Only eight qualified hitters walked more often than Donalson (15.2 percent) in 2019. Some of the names ahead of him on the list are especially impressive, like Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Rhys Hoskins, Juan Soto and Max Muncy.

He strikes out a fair amount — 23.5 percent against a career mark of 19.8 percent — but in the correct context, it isn’t a big deal. Sano, by comparison, has struck out in 36.3 percent of his career plate appearances. Last year, the American League average was 23.0 percent. In other words, he strikes out at about the league-average rate while hitting the crap out of the ball.

Speaking of that, among hitters with at least 50 batted-ball events, his average exit velocity of 92.9 mph ranked seventh. Sano (94.4, second) and Nelson Cruz (93.7, third) were among those ahead of him. On fly balls and line drives, his average exit velocity was 98.1 mph — sixth among MLB hitters but trailing Sano (99.6, second) and Cruz (99.2, fourth).

In terms of barrels — short definition: hit hard at a good trajectory for doing maximum damage — Donaldson had one in 9.4 percent of his plate appearances last season. That ranked 17th in the big leagues, and trailed Cruz (12.5 percent, first), Sano (10.7 percent, sixth) and Mitch Garver (9.7 percent, 13th). Former Twins Jason Castro (9.5 percent) and Cron (10.6 percent) were in there as well.

The short answer is that the middle of this lineup just got really, really (redacted) scary. Feel free to insert your favorite swear.

Plus, how fun would it be to listen to this guy talk about hitting all the time? Seriously. Do yourself a favor and carve out a half-hour or so to watch all of this:

Work Ethic/Personality/Fire

This one’s a little harder to get a grasp on from the 10,000-foot view of how well one can know a player from afar, but just a quick search of YouTube finds copious videos of Donaldson refining and honing his swing. Those videos also show him razzing his teammates during spring training sprints and cracking jokes.

Oh, and there’s also this fun mashup of times he got hot on the playing field:

Make no mistake — guys like this might not endear themselves to opposing fans, but they’re the kind of guys MLB players want to go to war with. It seems quite apparent from these videos that his teammates are firmly in his camp, regardless of if he’s kidding around or if something has him fired up on the field.

Plus, time heals a lot of these things. Do you really think Glen Perkins still cares about this?

I bet they’d laugh about it over a couple of Glen’s homebrews after all these years. It’s somehow been almost six years since this happened.

But again, these are the kinds of guys you want to go to war with. The Twins may not have gotten the “impact” pitching they set out for, but John Pemberton wasn’t trying to make Coca-Cola when he mixed coca leaves and cola nuts, either.

He just wanted to cure a headache. Add a little Jack and you can cure a lot of headaches. Maybe Donaldson is the straw that stirs that particular drink?

The Twins won 101 games in 2019 and as of right now have a better roster than they had at any point during last season. If it feels like a win, it’s probably a win.

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