MINNEAPOLIS — Mitch Garver was excited to learn the Twins had signed Josh Donaldson to the richest free agent contract in franchise history, but it wasn’t only because of the 219 career home runs and excellent glove the third baseman brought with him. Garver also acknowledged he’s a huge fan of Donaldson’s and, like his new teammate, loves to dissect the art of hitting.
“First of all, I’m excited personally because I love talking hitting and he’s a hitting nut,” Garver said last weekend at TwinsFest. “He was one of my inspirations in 2015, I loved watching his MVP campaign that year. Everyday we’d get home from the Florida State League and my roommates and I would turn on ESPN and watch Josh Donaldson highlights like, ‘I want to hit like that guy.’ Personally, I’m excited for him (to join the team) and to have him in this locker room with this lineup is going to be fun.”
Donaldson was the American League MVP with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015, hitting .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers and 123 RBIs in 158 games. That came in Donaldson’s age 29 season. Four years later, at the age of 33, Donaldson proved he was far from finished by hitting .259/.379/.521 with 37 homers and 94 RBIs in 155 games with the Atlanta Braves.
He will be expected to repeat that performance in the first season of a four-year, $92 million contract with Twins that includes a club option for 2024. Garver, who hit 31 of the Twins’ big-league record 307 home runs last season, was asked what type of message the Donaldson signing sent.
“If that didn’t make a statement around the league then it should,” Garver said. “That’s a pretty strong addition right there to an already dangerous lineup. And we were good. I’m totally happy with (Miguel) Sano at third base and Marwin (Gonzalez) at first, or whatever may be. Now that we’ve added this, we’re going to have 70 home runs on the bench by the end of the year. It’s crazy.”
There are many who agree the Twins still need one more top-line starting pitcher to become a World Series contender but the addition of Donaldson likely will keep them as favorites to repeat as AL Central champions. Garver will be expected to play a huge role in the expected success, coming off a season in which he hit 273/.365/.630 with 67 RBIs in 93 games.
Before Donaldson was signed Garver said there was a plan to get him limited time at first base (about 100 at-bats) in order to keep his bat in the lineup even when he wasn’t catching. But the plan now is for Sano to move to first base and Gonzalez will be his primary backup. It’s possible Garver could be a third option at first base, or maybe he can get some at-bats at designated hitter when veteran Nelson Cruz gets time off in the rest-and-recovery world that manager Rocco Baldelli embraces.
The Twins signed 33-year-old catcher Alex Avila in December to serve as Garver’s backup, but there is no longer any question about who has the primary job. Garver, 29, entered his third big-league season in 2019 having played in 102 games the previous year but there was concern about his defensive abilities. Those questions were answered as last season progressed and although he actually played in nine fewer games, there was no question that Garver passed Jason Castro on the depth chart. Castro signed with the Angels this offseason.
Garver said things never got awkward with Castro, even as their roles changed and the former backup put together a breakout season. “No, it never felt that way. We got along really well,” Garver said. “We have the same agent. We had that connection, we’ve always had that connection. I love Jason and the way we progressed it’s perfect because we’re on completely different ends of our careers. He’s approaching 10 years this year and I’m in year three and it’s, like, it’s fine. That’s the way I understood it from him. We worked well together, we liked the rotation. … We got along great.”
Avila arrives in Minnesota having played for Detroit (twice), the White Sox, the Cubs and Arizona in an 11-year career. But that experience doesn’t mean he won’t need help when it comes to getting to know the Twins’ pitching staff.
“I will be his main asset during spring training,” Garver said. “Everybody is going to be new. I was telling him (last week), ‘These are the five, six, seven, eight, nine bullpen guys, and now that we’ve added (Tyler) Clippard and (Sergio) Romo and (Matt) Wisler, the back end of our bullpen is solid. How do I explain to you all the guys that will be coming in?’ It will be important for him to catch those guys, as well as the starters. He will be leaning on me for some things about the guys.”
One of the changes Garver made as a catcher last offseason was being down on one knee to receive pitches. This enabled the plate umpire to get a better look and made Garver a more effective pitch-framer. It will be interesting to see how much time Garver spends behind the plate this season — a topic that’s certain to come up between Baldelli and Garver. Garver admitted that he realized his manager had a good idea of what he was doing after playing under him in 2019.
“I got a taste of the magic recipe last year and that was Rocco saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to catch one, you’re going to get a day. We’re going to catch two, you’re going to get a day,'” Garver said. “At first you’re like, ‘I feel really good’ and, of course, it’s May. You’re like, ‘I feel really good, I could play everyday.’ But by the time you get to August and September, you’re like, ‘Dude, my legs are dying right now.’ You think back and (say), ‘All right, it was a good call that we kind of built up this rest over time.’ Obviously, it’s important when you’re chasing that division title that you’re going to be in the game and you need to be healthy and you need to be ready. Rocco has a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about when it comes to rest.”
As for his success at the plate, Garver knows his breakout season will cause teams to have a new book on him and, this time, he won’t be taking anyone by surprise.
“I was trying to take less swings this offseason, so when I got to spring (training) I was still trying to get into prime (form),” he said. “So we’re kind of slowly building up to hitting everyday and working on a lot of the same things. I’m a great fastball hitter. Everybody now knows that. So we’re trying to get ahead of the curve and I’m switching things up and we’re looking for off-speed. Still have to hit the fastball, but I’m focusing a lot on how you hit certain off-speed pitches and what you have to do to do damage with them.”
There is no question that Garver will look to Donaldson for advice on how to continue punishing opposing pitchers. “I’m excited to get in the cage with him and just talking,” Garver said. “I have some things that I talk about and guys are like … it doesn’t click for them in a certain way. But it might with him and then he can bounce ideas off me and I’m all ears. But it will be really fun.”