Josh Donaldson Upgrades Already-Potent Twins Lineup

The Twins won 101 games last year, set a major league record with 307 homers, and ranked second in the American League in scoring at 5.80 runs per game, yet they found a way to improve that juggernaut of an offense by signing Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million deal. The just-turned-34-year-old slugger will man the hot corner, while incumbent third baseman Miguel Sanó will take over first base duties. It’s a risky move given Donaldson’s age and injury history, but it’s a bold one that improves the Twins’ chances of winning another AL Central title and returning to the postseason for the third time in four years.

Donaldson spent the 2019 season with the NL East champion Braves, and stayed healthy for the entire year for the first time since 2016, playing 155 games; by comparison, he played a combined 165 games for the Blue Jays and Indians in 2017-18 while battling shoulder and calf injuries. He hit a robust .259/.379/.521 (132 wRC+) with 37 homers, up from eight in 2018, and won NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Donaldson finished with 4.9 WAR thanks to above-average defense that resulted in his being a Gold Glove finalist. By UZR, he was 2.4 runs above average at the hot corner, by DRS he was second among all third baseman at 15 runs above average (trailing only Matt Chapman), and by Statcast’s new Outs Above Average, he was third at eight OAA (trailing only Nolan Arenado and Chapman).

Despite his age and injury history, Donaldson entered the offseason ranked fourth on our Top 50 Free Agents list behind Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg. In a market that didn’t lack for third basemen at various price points — among them free agents Rendon, Mike Moustakas, and Todd Frazier, as well as trade candidates Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant — the Braves, Nationals, Dodgers and Twins all vied for Donaldson’s services with varying degrees of vigor. He reportedly sought a four-year deal with an asking price said to be as high as $110 million, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

Donaldson didn’t get to that figure, but he could approach it. Per’s Mark Feinsand, he will earn $84 million over the next four seasons, with a $16 million club option and $8 million buyout for 2024 — a guarantee of $92 million, with escalator clauses that could push it as high as $104 million. According to Feinsand, it’s the second-largest guarantee ever for a player 33 years old or older. It’s the fifth-largest deal of the winter, with Cole ($324 million), Rendon and Strasburg ($245 million apiece), and Zack Wheeler ($118 million) the only ones outdoing him. Donaldson’s $23 million AAV matches what he made in each of the past two seasons; he set a since-broken record for the largest one-year deal for an arbitration-eligible player in 2018, then signed a one-year pillow contract last winter after his injury-wracked season. He turned down a $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Braves; as revenue-sharing recipients, the Twins will only have to forfeit their third-highest selection in the 2020 draft.

With his deal, Donaldson outdid both Kiley McDaniel’s projection (three years, $70.5 million, $23.5 million AAV) and our crowdsource median (three years, $60 million, $20 million AAV). That’s not too surprising given that both sources also undershot the aforementioned larger deals as well in what has been a stronger free agent market than last winter.

Projection-wise, ZiPS forecasts a steep fall-off from Donaldson’s age-34 to age-37 seasons, but just a hair under 10 WAR for the four guaranteed years — which is to say that this contract isn’t likely to be a bargain, but it should easily be worth the money on the front end, if not the back:

ZiPS Projections – Josh Donaldson
2020 .252 .373 .481 449 75 113 23 1 26 79 83 126 4 127 3 3.8
2021 .248 .364 .455 420 66 104 22 1 21 68 73 111 3 118 1 2.9
2022 .243 .351 .435 395 58 96 20 1 18 59 62 97 3 110 0 2.1
2023 .234 .334 .390 367 49 86 16 1 13 48 52 82 2 94 -2 1.0

The addition of Donaldson gives the Twins lineup six players who hit at least 30 homers last year, with Nelson Cruz (41), Max Kepler (36), Sanó (34), Eddie Rosario (32), and Mitch Garver (31) joining Donaldson. He represents a significant upgrade for the Twins, who received a solid 3.0 WAR from their third basemen in 2019, but -0.2 from their first basemen. Sanó, who missed the first quarter of the season due to surgery on his right heel stemming from a laceration he suffered after a collision on a metal stair, made 86 starts at the hot corner, with Marwin Gonzalez starting 35 times there, mostly during Sanó’s absence, and Luis Arraez, Ehire Adrianza and Willians Astudillo combining for 40 starts later in the year. At first base, C.J. Cron took 110 starts, Gonzalez 19, Adrianza 12, Astudillo 11, and Sanó eight. Cron was non-tendered in December after hitting for just a 101 wRC+ with 0.3 WAR. Going by Steamer projections (since we don’t have full team ZiPS for our depth charts yet), Sanó (3.0 WAR) and Donaldson (4.6) would together represent nearly a five-win upgrade on the team’s 2019 production at the two positions, with the discrepancy between the latter’s projection and his ZiPS from the table above based on an estimated 20% more playing time.

A good chunk of the Twins’ gains would come from the defensive realignment:

Twins Corner Infield Defense, 2019 vs. 2020
Player Pos UZR DRS OAA
C.J. Cron 1B -0.6 3 1
Others 1B -1.0 -6 2
Miguel Sanó 3B -6.7 -5 -3
Others 3B 2.2 4 4
2019 Configuration Total -6.1 -4 4
Miguel Sanó* 1B -5.3 -10 5
Josh Donaldson 3B 2.4 15 8
2020 Configuration Total -2.9 5 13
OAA = Outs Above Average, via Statcast. * = Sano 1B metrics prorated per 150 games based on career performance (31 games).

Sanó’s numbers are based upon just 31 games and 223 career innings at the position; with a full, healthy spring to focus on polishing his skills there, the 6-foot-4, 272-pound slugger may be better than the numbers above indicate. Donaldson may well be better than what’s shown above given his career UZR/150 of 5.2, and about 10 DRS per 150 games as well.

The Twins have had something of a busy offseason, retaining Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, and Sergio Romo and adding Alex Avila, Homer Bailey, Tyler Clippard, and Rich Hill, but all of those moves were one-year deals except for Pineda’s two-year contract, and with the exception of Odorizzi, none of those players projects to produce even 2.0 WAR in 2020. The addition of Donaldson is by far their splashiest move, and while it won’t shore up the gaps in their rotation, it should particularly help the more contact-oriented Randy Dobnak and Devin Smeltzer, rookies who are currently projected to round out the starting five while Pineda finishes his PED suspension and Hill works his way back from elbow surgery.

Given that it ranks 21st in out depth charts, the rotation could still use additional improvement, though with the team’s payroll now at an estimated $139 million — an increase of about $20 million over last year and about $11 million ahead of the franchise record set in 2018 — finding a way to add such an arm could take some creativity. It will be up to president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine to figure something out but with the Donaldson signing, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat, adding a legitimate star to an already-potent lineup and strengthening their already-strong chances in the AL Central.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Rational Fanmember
4 years ago

In related Twins news: What is wrong with Jose Berrio’s Steamer Projection? Was there a mistake somewhere?

Rational Fanmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

This was a serious question, for all down voting.

Berrios steamer projection as of today is showing a 4.49 projected ERA and 4.47 projected FIP. Over the past two seasons, Berrios has thrown 392 innings with a 3.74 ERA and 3.87 FIP. If you take his past three seasons, the numbers remain nearly identical around 3.75 and 3.85. He’s 25 years old coming off his third consecutive season reducing his BB rate.

I just don’t understand that number at all, and I’m trying to understand if it was a mistake or if there’s some underlying reason that STEAMER thinks Berrios is going to get significantly worse as a 25/26 year old despite three straight seasons of pretty consistent production.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Steamer basically thinks he’ll allow way more homers. 8.63 K/9 is a little low compared to his 17-19 average but let’s call that regression; 2.71 BB/9 is just not buying all of his BB/9 gains.

But it thinks he’ll average 1.46 HR/9, way more than he has since his bad rookie year. Last year’s MLB-wide HR/FB was 15.3%, it seems like they’re assuming he’s not immune to that trend.

Looking around the league it seems like Steamer is hitting everyone with this, I’d be interested to read more about it if anyone knows details.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Just guessing…

His xFIP in 2 of those 3 years was a half run higher than either his FIP or ERA. I think xFIP is based on HR/FB% among other things and his is very low – 15th best among qualified starters last year. Some of that probably has to do with Target field (which is especially brutal on LH home runs and the RH Berrios presumably benefits from that more than a LH pitcher would). Maybe Steamer expects regression in his HR/FB rate?

Rational Fanmember
4 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Yeah, I saw that but even using his xFIP, he’s around 4.25 the past three years. And his HR/FB rates weren’t abnormally low by any means last year at 12%. Maybe it is as simple as that, but I find it to be incredibly odd. Looking through all the players, most that have those discrepancies make a lot of sense; for example, Giolito has only 1 year of success, and 1 year of misery, so the slow movement on his projection is logical to a degree. Berrios has been consistent as can be over the last three years though, and as I said above it’s not like he’s old and running into the aging curve. He should be entering the prime of his career.

4 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

I find this even weirder than Steamer’s projection for Kyle Gibson having a career year at age 32. My guess is that this is because Steamer basically believes that players never change except based on age. Berrios was terrible in his first look at the majors, and has been off that initial curve for a while.

I’m a little reluctant to hit Steamer too hard here because this approach at a population level is surprisingly accurate, but you can get some totally bizarre results if a guy has an incredible or terrible first look in the majors.

Someone who knows more about Steamer’s mechanics can refute or confirm this.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Steamer’s mechanics have improved but the inverted “W” configuration is still a big red flag for injury.