The biggest free agent splash in Twins history is here to power up a reigning division winner, which likely would've been favored to make the playoffs in 2020 even without him.
What is Josh Donaldson's impact at third base, and how big of a difference-maker can he be?
Projected Starter: Josh Donaldson
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Ehire Adrianza, Willians Astudillo
Prospects: Jose Miranda, Keoni Cavaco
The Twins paid a pretty penny to acquire Donaldson's services, shattering the franchise record in January by inking him to a four-year deal worth $92 million. But their investment is well warranted, given his ability to enhance the roster in a multitude of ways.
First, there's his leadership and experience. Donaldson has played in more than 1,000 MLB games, accrued more than 40 fWAR, been named to three All-Star teams, and won an MVP award. Already, young Twins hitters have been flocking to him in camp, and just as he hinted upon signing, the veteran slugger has been eager to offer insight and guidance.
But in more tangible respects, Donaldson delivers a clear and decisive upgrade to this Twins club. Offensively, he's another high-octane power hitter joining a lineup full of them; it says a lot that Donaldson's .900 OPS and 37 home runs from 2019 don't especially stand out amongst his new teammates.
But of course, adding another high-end bat is always a good thing, and Donaldson has a lengthier track record of production at this level than anyone, except 39-year-old Nelson Cruz.
Donaldson's Statcast charts are a sight to behold. (Red means elite. There's a lot of red here.)
Over a very large sample, Donaldson has flat-out clobbered baseballs with regularity. His average exit velocity and barrel rate both ranked among the top 8% of all hitters in four of the past five seasons (excepting only an injury-plagued 2018). If healthy, he's going to mash. Period. There's no one else on the roster we can say this about so confidently.
But aside from joining the bomba parade, Donaldson also brings something unique to the Twins lineup: patience. The far-right column in the stat sheet above shows his BB rates, which have ranked in the top 4% of all MLB hitters in each of his last three healthy seasons. Only four qualified American Leaguers – Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Daniel Vogelbach, Carlos Santana – walked at a higher clip last year than Donaldson, who drew 100 free passes for the Braves.
This skill manifests itself both overtly and more subtly. On 100 occasions, the slugger strolled to first base and set up a teammate (often Freddie Freeman) to do damage. But there's an attrition factor too. Donaldson grinds ABs. He rarely chases out of the zone, and averaged more pitches per plate appearance last year than Cruz or Luis Arraez (who were both above the league average).
When he's in the box, the distinguished veteran places immense pressure on pitchers, luring them into nerve-racking deep counts and frequently capitalizing. From the very start of an AB, his opponent is under the gun. I think this stat kinda says it all:
So clearly, Donaldson is a monumental addition to the lineup. Almost any other year, it'd feel like a transformative one, but given this team's makeup before he joined, Donaldson's biggest impact might actually be felt on defense.
A variety of metrics – from Statcast's Outs Above Average (94th percentile) to Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Saved (second among MLB third basemen at plus-15) – ranked him last year among the league's finest at his position. He's replacing a player in Miguel Sano who was in the 8th percentile for OAA, and who cost his team an additional 20 runs defensively compared to Donaldson, according to his negative-5 DRS.
There's pretty much zero not to like about Donaldson, but when you look past him on the depth chart, and in the pipeline, things get bleak in a hurry. Sizing up the long-term picture at third base, it suddenly becomes much easier to see why the Twins were willing to go four years with the 34-year-old, and why they'll need to hope he can hang at the hot corner for some time.
Our recently released Top 20 prospects list featured one part-time third baseman – Jose Miranda, at No. 20. Even the honorable mentions were devoid of players at this position. I listed 2019 first-round draft pick and current shortstop Keoni Cavaco as a future option here, merely because he played third base in high school and there's some thought he will end up there in the long run. But he's 18.
The short-term depth also isn't great. Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza are fine fill-ins, but either one would probably be stretched as starter over a prolonged period.
It would actually be interesting to see what would happen if Donaldson were to go down for a while. Would the Twins move Sano back across the diamond? Would they slide over Arraez, who started 15 games at third as a rookie, and tap into their superior depth at second base? Or would they leave the right side of their infield alone and just let the utilitymen hold it down?
Hopefully we won't need to find out. Donaldson played in all but seven games for Atlanta last year, and has generally been an iron man with the exception of 2017 and 2018, when he missed a full season's worth of games due to recurring calf issues. His 2019 was very reassuring, but at 34, nothing can be taken for granted.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's Donaldson, then a massive dropoff. Examining the organizational depth at third base behind Minnesota's new corner-infield cornerstone really brings into focus the magnitude of his addition. The Twins will get by without him if need be – they were planning around that possibility, as negotiations dragged throughout the winter and at one point looked bleak – but he lifts both their offense and defense by a full notch.
"The Minnesota Twins will never be the same. This is a transformational signing," Matthew Trueblood wrote here the night it went down. As the season approaches, that now feels clearer than ever.
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Second Base
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