It was a big step for the Minnesota Twins when they landed former MVP Josh Donaldson in January of 2020. They signed the third baseman to a four-year, $92 million contract, the largest in franchise history, on the back of a 100-win season where they recaptured the AL Central for the first time in nearly a decade.
Needless to say, there was palpable optimism adding Donaldson’s bat into the middle of the Bomba Squad lineup.
We’re only two seasons removed from the signing, and Donaldson is already the subject of trade rumors. Things have changed following a disappointing 89-loss season in 2021. The team underwent a soft reset by dealing a handful of veterans at the trade deadline, including ace pitcher José Berríos.
Many other players were rumored to be in those trade talks. One of the biggest names was Donaldson, who may or may not fetch high-end prospects if the Twins eat some of his contract. Others believe that Donaldson’s production doesn’t justify his contract and that his antics are a bit of a distraction. Additionally, some younger options are playing third base in the high minors, including Jose Miranda.
If Minnesota has its sights set on 2023, it seems like an easy decision to move on from Donaldson. But if they want to compete next year, there is an excellent case to be made for keeping him around for the remainder of his contract. A competitive Twins team would be wise to continue finding a role for the former MVP.
Donaldson won the American League MVP with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014 as one of the most feared hitters in the league. Not only because of his bat, but also his “f-you” attitude at the plate that his teammates admire and opposing teams can’t stand. His career took a setback after a poor 2018 season. But he bounced back in 2019 with the Atlanta Braves by slashing .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs in a contract year to earn his payday with the Twins.
Bringing Donaldson to Minnesota at age 34 came with some regression risk. The three-time All-Star is past his prime, but his 2019 season proved that he could still be an impact player. In two seasons with the Twins, Donaldson has played just over a full season of games (163). He slashed .243/.355/.474 and belted 32 home runs during that span.
Donaldson may not be the MVP-caliber player he once was in Toronto. Those hopes are in the rearview mirror at this point in his career. But the Twins knew that they weren’t going to be paying for that level of production when they signed him, and Donaldson shouldn’t be considered a bust in Minnesota. His numbers might not set the league on fire, but he takes good at-bats in the middle of the Twins lineup. FanGraphs suggests he’ll be better than last season, projecting him to slash .249/.357/.480 with 30 home runs in 2022.
After the Twins traded veterans at the deadline, the team was looking to undergo a youth movement with their rising prospects. Miranda, 23, had an unexpected breakout season and was the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in 2021. The infield prospect is seen as a potential replacement for Donaldson at the hot corner. Miranda will crack the big league roster at some point in the 2022 season, and eager fans will be able to see him play with the St. Paul Saints.
Because Miranda has no big-league experience, the Twins brass would likely slowplay his time before trading away Donaldson to make room for him. On the other hand, if Miranda proves he can consistently hit big-league pitching and be an upgrade over Donaldson in the field, then Donaldson becomes more of a designated hitter. Moving Donaldson to DH would likely allow him to maintain his production as he enters his age-36 season.
Narratives, stereotypes, and perception can be created quickly and hard to change in the eyes of the Twins fanbase. After missing most of the 2020 season to a calf injury and missing the beginning of the 2021 campaign, he was labeled someone who couldn’t stay healthy while making over $20 million. However, Donaldson was tied for the second-most games played last season with 135, behind only Jorge Polanco (152).
The lockout makes it more likely that the Twins retain Donaldson, especially if it drags on. There just might not be enough time to work out a good trade for both sides before players need to report back for Spring Training. And that could prove to be for the better.
The Twins still have many prospects and young players getting their first taste of big-league action. Donaldson isn’t the leader that Nelson Cruz was, but that’s okay because he still is someone with plenty of baseball under his belt to guide the younger players. The antics and abrasiveness he brings may not always be warranted at times (see him getting in a heated exchange with Luis Arraez in the dugout last season). But there is no doubt that he can provide a spark for the team and balance the more level-headed and soft-spoken Rocco Baldelli.
Donaldson doesn’t have to be a Twins for life or even earn the team option on his contract for 2024 as long as he can be as productive for the final two seasons of his deal as he was in his first two years in Minnesota. There will likely be more opportunities to trade the third baseman if the team desires. But if the Twins believe that they can compete in 2021, Donaldson will continue playing in a Twins uniform, and the team has an excellent opportunity to make the most of it.