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Zulgad: Difficult decision: Why the Twins might have to move Josh Donaldson to DH in 2021

Josh Donaldson
Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson throws out Chicago White Sox’s Luis Robert at first during the third inning of a baseball game Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Twins not only thought they were adding another powerful bat to their lineup when they signed free agent Josh Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract last January, they also believed they were getting a slick fielding third baseman who would be a major upgrade on Miguel Sano.

Less than a year later, and following a pandemic-shortened season in which Donaldson was rarely healthy, the Twins might be facing the fact that while Donaldson’s bat could be a threat in 2021, expecting the 2015 AL MVP to be their everyday third baseman next summer might not be realistic.

Why would the Twins not want to get their money’s worth when it comes Donaldson? Because limiting his time at third base might be the only way to get a significant return on their investment. That is something that did not happen this season as Donaldson missed 30 games because of a right calf strain suffered in late July. He was activated from the injured list on Sept. 2 and was able to remain on the field until he aggravated the problem last Friday against the Reds.

Donaldson was not on the Twins’ playoff roster as they were swept in two games by the Houston Astros in the first round. If this had marked the first time Donaldson dealt with a calf issue, then the Twins might attribute his issues to bad luck and hope the veteran slugger would be fine in spring training. But Donaldson’s recent history tells a much different story and one that Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, had to hope he wouldn’t have to confront only a season into what is the biggest contract the Twins have ever given to an outside free agent.

Donaldson, whose contract includes a $16 million club option for 2024 that can be bought out for $8 million, was signed by the Twins coming off a one-season stint in Atlanta in which he slashed .259/.379/.521 with 37 home runs and 94 RBIs in 155 games. Playing on a one-year, $23 million deal in Atlanta, Donaldson earned National League Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Why Donaldson only got a one-year deal in Atlanta is what’s most important. He had started the 2018 season with Toronto before ending it with Cleveland but only played in 52 total games. Inflammation in his right shoulder had cost him playing time but, more concerning, was the fact that a strained left calf caused him to miss June, July and most of August. Yes, that was his left and not his right calf, but now let’s go back to the 2017 season.

Donaldson played in 113 games that year with the Blue Jays but missed 38 because of a right calf strain. Donaldson acknowledged in an Instagram post this summer that he had torn both of his calves a total of seven times in two years.

The Twins revealed little information about the severity of Donaldson’s latest calf injury but the fact he was limited to 28 games in a 60-game season and slashed only .222/.373/.469 with six home runs and 11 RBIs tells you that something is going to have to change in 2021.

Donaldson’s post on social media about his past calf issues was made in late July after he was presented with his NL Comeback Player of the Year award and days before he was injured again. “Special thanks to (Arizona Cardinals wide receiver) Larry Fitzgerald for getting me in touch with Dr. Josh Sandell whom after three days of working with me had me running pain free after tearing both of my calves a total of seven times in two years,” he wrote.

Sandell is a sports medicine and soft tissues specialist who is based in Minnesota and has done work with the Vikings. Donaldson’s decision to sign with the Twins likely was based in part on Sandell’s presence in the Twin Cities, and while Donaldson almost certainly will continue to work with Sandell during the offseason, one has to wonder what the Twins will be planning for him.

One thing we don’t know for certain is exactly when Donaldson was injured this season. All we know is he left a late July game against Cleveland and a late September game against the Reds in the early innings. But putting the pieces of this puzzle together isn’t all that difficult, and it’s not beyond reason to think some of Donaldson’s problems might have originated in the field and not in the batter’s box.

This seemed to be especially true when it came to Donaldson’s injury in September. The particular play in question in this case occurred in the ninth inning of the Twins’ 5-4, 10-inning victory over Detroit on Sept. 22 at Target Field. The Tigers’ Isaac Paredes hit a ball toward third on which Donaldson made a great defensive play but failed to get Paredes at first. Donaldson appeared to be in a bit of discomfort after making that play, but he stayed in the game and it certainly wasn’t clear that something was wrong.

Donaldson came up in the bottom of the ninth with one out and Byron Buxton on first and hit into a short to second to first double play. It was on this play that it became obvious something wasn’t right as Donaldson looked to be running gingerly down the line, almost in a hopping manner. After the Tigers hit in the top of the 10th, Donaldson was to have been the Twins’ runner at second base to begin the bottom of the inning. Jake Cave ran for him and eventually scored as Minnesota scored two runs to win the game.

Manager Rocco Baldelli said afterward that Donaldson was all right and that Cave ran for him to give the Twins added speed. That certainly couldn’t be dismissed at the time, but the above factors quickly came to mind when Donaldson departed the Twins game a few days later after popping out in the first.

So if Donaldson’s calf issues do trace to an explosive first step he uses in the field — he is a very good third baseman and is able to make the difficult look routine — would the Twins be tempted to limit his time at the hot corner?

That could make sense and play a role in the decision the team must make on whether it retains designated hitter Nelson Cruz this offseason. Cruz, who will turn 41 next July, has been tremendous in his two seasons in Minnesota (.308/.394/.626 with 57 home runs and 141 RBIs in 173 games) but his contract has expired and the Twins have to find a way to keep Donaldson in the lineup.

Donaldson can play first base, but if the Twins are trying to limit the wear and tear on his calf  simply moving him to another position might not help. Donaldson, who was able to play 148 games at third base in 2019 for the Braves, will turn 35 on Dec. 8 and now has dealt with calf problems in three of the past four seasons. He is under contract to the Twins through at least his age 37 season.

The three-time All-Star’s greatest value will come if he can contribute both at the plate and at third base. But he has no value on the injured list, and that’s why the Twins might have to consider making Donaldson their primary designated hitter next season.