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Zulgad: While Josh Donaldson remains positive, Twins must now be prepared for the worst

Josh Donaldson
Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) runs out a ground ball during a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Fort Myers, Fla.. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Twins and Josh Donaldson did everything possible this offseason to devise a plan that would enable the highly paid third baseman to remain on the field in 2021. There were adjustments made to the way Donaldson ran the bases, his strength and conditioning program were altered and his spring training debut was delayed, all in the name of making sure his troublesome right calf would not again cause issues.

According to the Twins, they succeeded in keeping Donaldson’s calves healthy in the opener Thursday in Milwaukee. Instead, it was Donaldson’s right hamstring that caused him to pull up for a moment as he headed to second base after hitting a 98.5-mile-per-hour sinker from Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff into left-center field in the first inning. The 35-year-old was replaced by Luis Arraez at third base in the bottom of the first inning, and Saturday went on the 10-day injured list with what the team called a “mild strain.”

“I’m trying not to overthink it too much,” Donaldson said Saturday in a video call before the Twins played the second game of their three-game series in Milwaukee. “I think it’s kind of one of those things … at the end of the day put the work in and keep going and move forward from here.”

Twins fans can’t be blamed if they question how “mild” this injury might be and when they might see Donaldson next. Last season, he played in only 28 of 60 regular-season games as calf problems limited him for the third time in four seasons. A flare-up of the injury knocked out Donaldson for the Twins’ two-playoff losses to the Astros.

Donaldson, the American League MVP with Toronto in 2015, had arrived in Minnesota in February 2020 as rarity for the Twins franchise: A big free agent signing. He agreed to a four-year, $92 million contract with the expectation that he would become a key member of the Bomba Squad (Donaldson hit 37 home runs in 2019 with Atlanta) and also provide a major upgrade over Miguel Sano at third base.

But as is the case with so many big free-agent signings all over professional sports, the investment in Donaldson isn’t working out for the team that is on the hook for all of those millions. Donaldson is an intense competitor who turned himself into an MVP and approaches hitting like an art form. But he is 35 years old and seems to be battling chronic leg problems.

The Twins are attempting to treat the fact this is a hamstring issue as if that’s good news because it’s not a calf injury. Since when is an athlete in his mid-30s having a hamstring strain after one at-bat, or any time for that matter, something to breathe a sigh of relief about? The Twins’ brain trust believes in putting a positive spin on all injury news, but that simply isn’t possible this time around.

Donaldson was asked about his changed running style and the fact it might cause him to put more strain on his hamstrings and less on his calves. “I don’t want to say more of a load, I want to say it’s like just using my hamstrings more when I run,” he said. “I’m not trying to load my hamstrings up to any certain particular style.

“But I want to be able to use my hamstrings more throughout my running probably versus what I have. If I said that (about loading up his hamstrings), let me correct myself, to where I’m actually using more of my hamstring versus using my calf to accelerate and decelerate, thus probably not what it was meant to do. The (hamstrings) are more designed for that. … I’m not trying to look to far into it as of right now because it’s not something that’s recurring. This is the first time I can really think of it happening.”

The Twins are now going to have to be prepared to put a Plan B in place at third base for 2021.

Arraez, who has replaced Marwin Gonzalez as the Twins’ super-utility player, was at third again on Saturday. Sano also got some work at that position in spring training and the Twins could use him at third and Brent Rooker (recalled from the Taxi Squad to take Donaldson’s place on the roster) at first to get more power in the lineup.

Meanwhile, Donaldson will continue to rehab and hope that he can hit the way he did in his first at-bat on Thursday and during spring training (9-for-34 with two homers and six RBIs in 13 games) whenever he does return.

“At the beginning of the year there was definitely going to be some caution, like working me into the year,” Donaldson said, “so I’m not probably missing as many games as what people may think because there were already kind of planned off days for me to to start. … I don’t want to say it’s different (from the calf injuries), I don’t know yet, because I haven’t really went through a hamstring rehab.

“But anybody that deals with calf stuff, it’s so difficult to gauge where it’s at until you really start moving. I want to say it’s probably going to be with the hamstring, too. That’s why we’re optimistic right now barring any type of setback moving forward. The telltale sign is going to be when I start to run and start to sprint, so that’s kind of where we’re at with that. I feel good about where it’s at right now, but we’re going to have to see where it goes when I’m running. I’m trying to stay as positive as I can with that.”

At this point, that’s all Donaldson can do. It’s the Twins’ job to be prepared for the worst.