The Twins have apparently begun to explore Donaldson's trade market, with a report out of SNY last week suggesting "very preliminary talks" have taken place with the Mets. JD makes sense for a team like that: in the championship mix, and capable of benefiting from a brashly confident former MVP who's shown he can still play at a high level.
Donaldson's presence does little for the irrelevant 2021 Twins, so in assessing the sensibility of trading him to New York or elsewhere, the question becomes one of his future fit. Are the Twins doing themselves a great disservice by unloading Donaldson's 2022 and 2023 seasons – along with a 2024 team option – when all they're likely to get back is some level of salary relief and an unspectacular prospect or two?
I would suggest: no, probably not. Let us consider the two aforementioned scenarios.
If the front office decides that its current collection of talent is fundamentally insufficient, and the next wave of prospects won't be ready quickly enough to fuel a return to championship contention within the next two years, then keeping Donaldson and his $21 million annual salary simply doesn't make sense, on any level. Not only is it an illogical expense, begrudged by ownership, but JD himself will likely become discontented by a non-competitive approach in what may be his final productive seasons.
So what if they choose instead to rebuild on the fly and make another go of it in 2022? I think this is the right approach, and the most likely one. Here it becomes a little harder to argue that the Twins are better off without Donaldson, who's been a high-quality player when on the field.
Nonetheless, three reasons I believe it's the right call:
Donaldson is at high risk for injury and regression.
I think we need to divorce ourselves from not only the idea of who Donaldson used to be – a 40-HR MVP-caliber superstar – and maybe even the image of Donaldson as he is now. Turning 36 in December, he's at a stage where rapid physical decline is commonplace, and that's evident enough from what we've witnessed on the field.
His offensive skills are mostly holding up – albeit not at the level of his late-20s prime – but Donaldson's defense has gone from great to good, and his speed from bad to "yikes." The injury issues, recurring and localized in his legs, seem unlikely to dissipate as he ages toward 40.
The nature of a long-term deal for a mid-30s player like Donaldson is that you expect to get the best value up-front, and deal with the likelihood of regression as a cost of doing business. The Twins have already moved past the ostensible good part of JD's contract, with fruitless results for the team. Now they're moving into a back end carrying more risk and less upside.
Granted, these facts are plainly evident to any suitor for Donaldson, which is why the Twins aren't exactly in a position of ideal leverage. But a team like the free-spending Mets is more well-suited to take on that risk and the associated financial commitment than Minnesota.
The Twins have depth at third base.
The indispensability of Donaldson is contingent on the quality of his potential replacements. When they signed him, third base was a position of clear organizational scarcity. Today, that's not quite so true.
First and foremost, you have the emergence of José Miranda as a top prospect. He raked in Double-A, he's now raking in Triple-A, and he's 23. Miranda is on the verge of big-league readiness and his contact-heavy profile lends itself to at least staying afloat in his early exposure to the majors, if not quickly taking off.
It wouldn't be a matter of putting all eggs in the meteoric Miranda's basket, either. Luis Arraez has played 250 career innings at third in the majors. Royce Lewis played primarily there in his last competitive baseball action during the 2019 Arizona Fall League. Miguel Sanó will still presumably be around next year.
The Twins have options. And while none are Donaldson-caliber players, it's not entirely clear that any would be all that drastic a drop-off from the version you're getting at ages 36 and 37, to whatever extent his health makes him available.
The Twins have bigger priorities and JD at third base was always a luxury.
The Twins never needed Josh Donaldson. They signed him late in the 2019-20 offseason because they had spending flexibility, missed out on their free agent pitching targets, and saw an opportunity to level-up an already great offense. He was a luxury they could afford at the time, but much has changed since, and now you really wonder if he's one they can still afford.
Even without Donaldson and Nelson Cruz, the Twins would be poised to field a solid offensive unit next year. The pitching staff is another story. They're going to need all the help and resources they can get. While no other team is going to take on the entirety of Donaldson's remaining ~$60 million commitment, any fraction of that spending flexibility will be useful to the front office as it addresses a needy rotation and bullpen, not to mention shortstop.
In the event he's traded, whatever the Twins are able to get back in exchange for Donaldson is going to look underwhelming on its face. It won't be a fun situation to navigate from a PR perspective. But when you look at the realities of a team that currently figures to have about $40 million in hand for the offseason, the logic of trading Donaldson is difficult to deny. They're staring down a wealth of key vacancies and he's a risk-laden expensive veteran.
The Twins have their work cut out if they want to turn around a last-place team and bring it back to respectability, much less World Series contention, in short order. Popularity can't be the guiding principle in the difficult decisions that lie ahead.
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