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Josh Donaldson Adds More Power to an Explosive Twins Lineup

Minnesota set the all-time home run mark in 2019, and now the team has signed the 2015 AL MVP

The Minnesota Twins set an MLB record for home runs last season. All five Twins who reached 30 homers last season are returning in 2020. And the club just signed a new player who bashed 37 of them last year.

Ball aerodynamics permitting, expect plenty more screamers to clear the Target Field fence this year.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson is a Twin now, reportedly signing a four-year, $92 million contract with a fifth-year option Tuesday. After winning 101 games last season and posting a franchise-best offensive performance, the Twins made their first real splash of the winter, doubling down on that offense. The last top-tier free agent of the winter is off the market, and Minnesota is all the better for the signing.

The newest Twin was one of the majors’ best players over a long period last decade. From 2013 through 2017, he ranked second among all position players in WAR, behind only Mike Trout. He ranked in the top five in overall offense, flashed a stellar glove at the hot corner, and won the 2015 AL MVP. His broader narrative arc—failed as a minor-league catcher, discarded in a trade, eventually an immediate MVP candidate in his first full season in Oakland—made him one of the sport’s most heartwarming stories, a testament to perseverance and second (or third, or more) chances.

In his final seasons with Toronto, however, Donaldson’s health began to falter. He missed six weeks in 2017 due to a calf injury, and in 2018, he played just 36 games for Toronto and 16 for Cleveland after a late-season trade, with further calf and shoulder injuries hampering his ability to stay on the field. Donaldson hit when he played (particularly in Cleveland), but in the ice-cold free-agent winter, teams were scared away from signing a player with injury concerns entering his mid-30s.

They should not have been so cowed. Donaldson went to Atlanta via a one-year, $23 million “pillow” contract, and the Braves reaped the benefits. Donaldson stayed healthy, playing 155 games. He smoked the ball all year, producing a .259/.379/.521 slash line with those 37 home runs. He even maintained his solid defensive play, posting either an above-average (by UZR’s measurements) or phenomenal (by DRS’s) season at his usual position.

Entering free agency this winter, then, Donaldson was in better position than last year: one birthday older, sure, but having proved sufficient skill remained in his swift-swinging bat. And with Anthony Rendon’s signing at the winter meetings, Donaldson had his pick of contracts from every prospective contender still in need of a third baseman.

For the Twins, Donaldson poses a formidable addition. Minnesota’s regular third baseman last year was Miguel Sanó, a far better fit for first base given his defensive deficiencies—and now, with first baseman C.J. Cron departed, Sanó can slide across the diamond to make way for his newest power-hitting teammate. The defense thus improves, the lineup benefits from the effective Donaldson-for-Cron swap, and utility man Marwin González can retain free rein to rotate wherever he’s needed on the field.

Until Tuesday, Minnesota’s moves this winter were mostly fringe additions than bold-face upgrades. Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda (the latter in the middle of a PED suspension) stayed around in the rotation. Rich Hill and Homer Bailey joined them. Alex Avila replaced Jason Castro as the backup catcher, and Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard gave the bullpen veteran depth. But with Donaldson, the Twins turned their heads to the top of the roster, giving the franchise a new face to plaster on billboards around town and a new bat to bash in the middle of the lineup.

As we’ve discussed before when reviewing transactions this winter, a winning team is not bound to be balanced between offense and defense. Donaldson’s 2015 Blue Jays, which led the majors in position-player WAR but ranked 15th among pitchers, are a perfect example: That colossal core of Toronto sluggers showed that a 10-8 win counts just as much as a more “normal” 4-2 victory. And adding a great hitter to an already-great lineup makes the whole unit more than the sum of its parts, because players perform better with runners already on base, and now Donaldson will be hitting plenty with the likes of Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco motoring around the bases in front of him.

There’s risk involved, of course, as with any contract issued to a player with Donaldson’s age and injury history. But risk is mitigated for the Twins, who have a remarkably clean cap sheet beyond 2021—only Kepler, Polanco, and Sanó, all holding below-market-value deals, are owed money beyond next year—and, before this signing, had a lower 40-man payroll commitment for 2020 than they did in 2018.

And in the context of the AL Central race, this signing could prove crucial. Despite winning in a relative romp last season, the Twins should face a surging White Sox squad and a still-competitive Cleveland club this year. Yet while Cleveland traded an ace pitcher for a quarter and a penny on the dollar, the Twins capitalized on their first real period of contention in a decade, adding a perfect fit for the lineup who can help this season, next season, and beyond. Tuesday was the best day for the Twins since they clinched the division last September.

Now, if only Donaldson can work some magic to prevent Minnesota from facing the Yankees in the 2020 ALDS.

The subheadline of a previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Twins set the all-time home run record in 2018. It was in 2019.