Josh Donaldson, Bringer of Rings
The Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth for seven years and $126 million prior to 2011. Unlike these Twins, those Nats weren’t ready to win, but they needed to announce themselves as serious about acquiring stars and about winning games. The Twins, despite their 101-win 2019, needed this signing to do the same. However, the serendipity of this match runs much deeper than that.
No contending team needed a defensive upgrade on the left side of its infield more than the Twins did. I wrote about this right after they were eliminated in October. Donaldson is a massive upgrade for them. He was second in Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2019, and has been great throughout his career, but the particular way in which he saves those runs makes him a particularly perfect fit for Minnesota.
Defensive Runs Saved breaks down how players perform on balls they field straight on (including charging weakly-hit balls), to their right, and to their left. Of Donaldson’s 15 runs saved, 10 of them came on balls to his left, toward the hole between third base and shortstop. Donaldson is great ranging to his left, picking the ball smoothly and throwing accurately on the move, across his body. He’ll not only be an upgrade of about 20 runs over Miguel Sanó at his own position, but help minimize the impact of Jorge Polanco’s defensive deficiencies at short.
At the plate, the big problems the Twins face in 2020 are the risk of regression from some of their breakout bats and the departure of hitting coach James Rowson. Donaldson’s arrival softens both of those blows. The Twins’ trademark last season was their unrelenting focus on the goal of driving the ball in the air to the pull field. No team did it as often as they did; no team came close.
Few hitters agree as readily with that mentality, or execute it as methodically and faithfully, as Donaldson does. Teams and players who make that their objective can set themselves at different points on a spectrum of approaches, however, tinkering with the means they believe can most consistently achieve that end. Some prefer to emphasize plane, launch angle, and timing. Others emphasize maximizing exit velocity, even if it means using the big part of the field at times and having to command the strike zone better. The Twins fall into the latter bucket, and so does Donaldson.
Rank the 342 batters who had at least 150 tracked batted balls in 2019 by average exit velocity, and the Twins now have the second-, third-, and sixth-hardest hitters, in Sanó, Nelson Cruz, and Donaldson. Rank the group by average exit velocity solely on fly balls and line drives, and they have the first-, third-, fifth-, and seventh-most powerful sluggers, with those three in the same order and Mitch Garver sliding into the picture. If you were worried about a brain drain, or about the team being (on the whole) pretty aggressive and susceptible to junk, the addition of a guy like Donaldson, who walks about 15 percent of the time and will not shut up about leg kick and launch angle even if you ask him to, should be a source of comfort.
Cost certainty can be a hard asset to assess, but it’s clear that the Polanco, Max Kepler, and Sanó extensions have delivered tangible value here. With those three and Donaldson locked in for at least the next four seasons for an average annual total of $45 million and change, the team has a ton of flexibility. They can afford to pay Garver, Byron Buxton and Luis Arráez, even if they have big seasons that put them in position to demand huge paydays.
They have time and leverage to seek long-term deals with Royce Lewis, Trevor Larnach, or Alex Kirilloff, should any of them come up and perform in a way that makes that kind of investment seem wise. They’ve replaced Cruz’s massive power and reliability, a year before they even needed to do so. They have a solid offensive core under control for relatively little money, which gives them the season to assess some internal starting pitching candidates they like very, very much, and which will allow them to bid handsomely on starters next winter if those internal candidates don’t assert themselves.
Jeff Passan tweeted that the Twins were the sneaky favorites to sign Donaldson from the outset of the offseason. In hindsight, perhaps that should have been obvious. No team and player were better matched, even including the Twins and certain free-agent starters for whom they elected not to pay a premium. This move feels perfect.
- Blake, James, raindog and 16 others like this