Why signing Josh Donaldson was a move the Twins needed as they try to defend AL Central title
Donaldson is joining a group that set a single-season homer record in 2019
The Minnesota Twins on Tuesday reportedly agreed to terms with free agent third baseman Josh Donaldson . After a frenzied pace earlier in the offseason that saw premium free agents Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, and Gerrit Cole come off the board in quick succession, Donaldson was the last big name standing. Now he's landed with the reigning AL Central champs.
Donaldson, 34, is coming off an impressive bounce-back season with the Braves. He batted .259/.379/.521, which was good for an OPS+ of 127. He also smacked 37 home runs and 33 doubles in 155 games. You can discount those unadjusted numbers a bit if you're so inclined on account of the hitter-friendly nature of SunTrust Park, as it was then known, and the "rabbit ball" that in large measure defined the 2019 regular season. Moving forward, you can rightly raise concerns about Donaldson's age and the possibility that decline will set in soon.
Countering those concerns are Donaldson's quality of contact measurements from 2019. Consider:
- Last season, Donaldson's average exit velocity of 92.9 mph ranked in the top ten percent of MLB.
- His hard-hit percentage of 50.0 ranked in the top three percent of MLB.
- His "barrel" rate of 15.7 percent ranked in the top four percent of MLB.
- Based on quality of contact, Donaldson in 2019 had an expected slugging percentage of .536, which is higher than his actual mark of .521.
If you look at those batted ball metrics in totality, Donaldson probably deserved to have even better numbers than he did last season. All of that bodes very well for 2020 (and perhaps beyond), despite his age.
Also, Donaldson, clear of the injuries that afflicted him in 2017 and 2018, enjoyed one of his best seasons with the glove, and advanced metrics are in almost total agreement on that point. To cite one example, MLB's Outs Above Average, which takes into account things like positioning during infield overshifts, ranks Donaldson for 2019 behind just Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman among primary third basemen.
None of this, of course, was lost on the Twins. They add his power bat to a that "Bomba Squad" offense that last season ranked second in the AL in OPS and set the all-time record for home runs in a season (307). No less important is that Donaldson and his plus glove will dislodge Miguel Sano at third base and push him across the diamond to first. Sano is one heck of a hitter, but he was squarely a fielding liability at the hot corner. As well, the move to a less demanding defensive position may afford him better health.
In lineup terms, Donaldson essentially replaces C.J. Cron, who earlier this offseason signed with the Tigers as a free agent. While Cron has his merits, Donaldson is a much more productive hitter and continues to profile as much, at least for the near- to mid-term. And to repeat, installing Donaldson at third and moving Sano to first significantly upgrades the Minnesota defense (it's also entirely possible Sano will be a defensive upgrade over Cron at first base).
This is a move the Twins needed to make. The Indians again profile as contenders in the AL Central, provided they do the proper thing and keep Francisco Lindor. The White Sox also look like they'll be relevant thanks to their impressive young core in tandem with one of the most active offseasons of any team. Minnesota's addition of Donaldson, one of the best talents available, in a real way parries all of those concerns and signals that -- unlike so many other contenders -- the Twins are taking their present opportunity seriously. Maybe this contract because of Donaldson's age doesn't look so appealing on the back end from the team standpoint. For 2020, though, it's a huge offseason win for the Twins.
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