In the midst of a blistering drought, Minnesota Twins fans have been clamoring for the Bringer of Rain to live up to his name.
When third baseman Josh Donaldson was signed to the most expensive free-agent deal in the history of the franchise two years ago, fans expected to feel like Andy Dufresne escaping Shawshank. The rain would soon soak them in sweet, replenishing water as they looked to the heavens. The investment in a major free agent would wash away the grime of 16-straight postseason losses.
Instead, this season has felt like the scene that immediately preceded that, where Dufresne crawled through a sewer pipe.
Granted, Donaldson is hardly the cause of the messy first three months of the season. He’s been more productive and healthier than many would expect of a 35-year-old with an extensive injury history. So will the Twins trade their front-line slugger while his production is still near the peak of expectations?
Sure, getting out of nearly $60 million in contract obligations sounds nice on the surface. However, the case can be made that the Twins would be better off holding onto him. They should plug their nose for the time being and continue making the crawl through the stinky sub-.500 record pipe to the replenishing rain on the other side.
For many, Minnesota’s record and the date on the calendar tell the whole story of this season. Time is definitely running short, so they understandably jump to the conclusion that this season is over. They even go as far as saying the window of contention for this club is closed.
In their eyes, the Twins have a responsibility to clear out major parts of the roster and start fresh next year.
Part of that mindset includes giving up players who have performed well in an effort to bring back a richer return. That could mean moving on from Donaldson.
If they go that route, they would be selling a player who prides himself on being a leader, and they’d be doing it just as he has started energizing the clubhouse in a relatively successful stretch. Notably, Donaldson gathered the team for a pregame meeting to ignite some energy before their 8-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Sunday.
“I think JD is showing some urgency. He’s going out there and delivering a message that we all need to hear,” Rocco Baldelli said in a postgame press conference. “I agree with him. I think it’s an opportunity to seize…and now we have to carry it forward.”
While that urgency hasn’t been apparent to Twins faithful until recently, the ability to inspire teammates is an intangible that is difficult to quantify. Even so, leadership ability was surely part of the thought process behind bringing Donaldson into the fold a year ago.
Intangibles aside, there is bound to be some concern over the potential for Donaldson’s decline as he ages. As guys get into their late 30s, even losing just a beat can lead to a steep fall. However, Donaldson has bucked that trend so far.
The inability to hit high-velocity pitches is usually one of the first areas of regression when an aging player starts to fall off a cliff. But Donaldson has a .738 slugging percentage on pitches 95 MPH and above this year (fourth in all of MLB according to Inside Edge).
His 121 wRC+ suggests he’s been about 21% better than league average this year while playing in 79% of games. For someone who many expected to see significant time either on the shelf or at least resting regularly, Donaldson has played in nearly every game since coming back from a 13-day IL stint in the first two weeks of the season.
He still possesses great leadership in the dugout, he can still catch up to the fastball with the best of them, and he’s stayed relatively healthy this year. So why are some people jumping at the opportunity to unload the former American League MVP?
It all boils down to an absence of iconic moments. The perception that Donaldson’s contract with the Twins is already a bust is due to his lack of production in high-leverage situations.
When the expected outcome of a game rides on his shoulders, he has repeatedly come up short. He’s hitting .125 in 19 opportunities with just a 23 wRC+ (77% worse than league average) in those situations this year. Sure, it’s definitely one factor accounting for why Twins are in their current hole, but these numbers are hardly predictive when looking at a player going forward.
Just look at his track record. Donaldson has been one of the better hitters in baseball over the last decade in high-leverage situations. His career slash line in those big moments? .294/.398/.558 with 26 home runs. While that production hasn’t shown up this year, it’s worth betting on better outcomes in the second half of this season, and maybe even the next two years of the contract.
Trading away their most-prized free-agent signing could also be damaging when it comes to optics. It’s hard enough getting potential impact players to come to Minnesota. Other free agents could be skeptical of committing themselves to a team with such a quick hook on an above-average player.
Fans would have a right to be upset with this message as well. People were thrilled when the Twins made the signing, and Donaldson has performed at or above expectations in almost every regard. Last year’s Twins were flawed but won the division and were on pace to win 97 games if given a full season’s worth of games.
Now they’re going to roll over after three lousy months?
Not only would they be trading away an above-average player, but they would also almost certainly need to pay some of the remaining salary on the deal to get another team to take on his contract. Chances are, no team will want to give up any of their top prospects for an aging third baseman, even if he is still producing. So the Twins would be essentially paying another team to take one of their best players.
Let’s just say that’s not going to get fans back in the seats. And they’ve been through a lot already this season.
Is a losing record in three consecutive months a fun thing to go through? No, but neither was crawling through the sewer pipe out of Shawshank State Prison. But the Twins would be better off waiting for the cleansing redemption of the pouring rain on the other side. They just need Donaldson to bring it.