As Spring Training begins again in Fort Myers, the lineup is once again filled with impact hitters like Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, and Max Kepler. But two of the most impactful bats in the lineup are guys with the biggest boom-or-bust potential.
Both players are reliable defensively and capable of sparking the entire lineup at times. The only thing getting in the way of more consistent production has been their injury history.
Donaldson has a longer track record going back to when he led the Toronto Blue Jays to an AL East crown and the ALCS in 2015, taking home the MVP. At the plate, he was one of the most dominant bats from 2014-16, where he earned three All-Star nods by hitting 107 home runs and averaged a BABIP of just under .300.
But injuries to both calves over 2017-18 derailed Donaldson’s career, where he played 113 games in 2017 and only 52 in 2018 (a shoulder injury also factored into his missed time that year). The next year he took a one-year prove-it deal with the Atlanta Braves and was able to play in 155 games, hitting .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs.
He had returned to health and MVP form (.292 BABIP) and received a handsome reward from the Twins, who signed him to a four-year, $92 million deal to augment the Bomba Squad lineup. But Donaldson battled a calf injury again, causing him to miss over half of the shortened 60-game season last year — including the playoffs, where the Twins were swept in two games by the Houston Astros.
They missed Donaldson in that series. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine brought him to Minnesota as an upgrade defensively at third base and to offer his playoff experience to a young roster with a postseason losing streak that dates back to 2004. Since 2012, Donaldson has only missed the playoffs once (in 2017) and has played in 39 postseason games.
Even though bringing in Donaldson was risky because of injuries, Falvey and Levine know he’s still capable of playing great baseball. They hope that it can come together at the right time to help the Twins to break their playoff losing streak.
On the other hand, Buxton’s career has been defined by flashes of phenomenal baseball that get overshadowed because of his inability to stay off the injured list. The No. 2 overall pick in 2012 quickly became one of the top prospects in the Twins’ farm system. But Buxton had trouble staying healthy in the minors too.
Buxton played in a career-high 140 games in 2017 — the only season he’s played over 100 games — and he had his best year, recording a .728 OPS, swiping 29 stolen bases, and was five wins above replacement (WAR), which is at an All-Star level.
But he couldn’t build on it. He only played 28 games in 2018 because of a fractured toe and wrist issues. Two years ago he returned to his 2017 form, but crashed into the wall in Miami halfway through the season and only played in 87 games. Last year he was able to play in 39 games and displayed power, hitting 13 home runs and ending the year with a career-high .577 slugging percentage.
Like in 2017, he received MVP votes — this time after a 60-game season.
Buxton has a very brief playoff history. In the 2017 Wild Card Game, he went hitless in two at-bats before leaving midway through the game after crashing into the outfield wall at Yankee Stadium. Last year he recorded his first playoff hit. He has stolen a base in every playoff game he’s been in so far.
His speed has always been his biggest asset. He has stolen 62 bases in his career and only been thrown out nine times.
The Twins have stuck with him despite his injury history, and he’s played well when healthy since 2017. He’s already proven that he can play at an All-Star level and receive MVP votes when he’s at his best.
Buxton and Donaldson are also great defensive players.
Buxton’s defense in center field is among the best in the league. His blazing speed turns extra-base hits in the gaps into routine flyouts and earned him a Gold Glove in 2017. The Twins have tried to mitigate injury by playing him deeper.
Donaldson has been reliable at the hot corner throughout his career, posing a .958 fielding percentage, and when he and Buxton aren’t on the field, the defense takes a considerable dip. The Twins have had some respectable depth third, but they are not to the level of Donaldson, and Kepler and Jake Cave are both respectable fielders but have nowhere near the range of Buxton.
The two players have a bit of a different arc. Buxton is a young player who’s smack in the prime of his career and trying to establish himself as one of baseball’s most dynamic players. On the other hand, Donaldson is trying to show that he can still play at a high level in the back half of his career. But the similarity between them is that their abilities on the field are overshadowed by how much time they spend off of it.
This isn’t the first article to bring up the importance of Buxton’s and Donaldson’s health. Heck, there’s a chance it won’t be the last. But the number of times it is repeated shows just how important these two players are to the Twins’ success in 2021.