Opportunism propelled the Minnesota Twins to an unexpected division title in 2019. To be sure, the club wouldn't have dethroned the Cleveland Indians without considerable steps forward from several key holdovers, but outsized returns on the relatively low-cost additions of Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Perez, Jonathan Schoop, and C.J. Cron in free agency last winter still factored hugely into the club's transformation, wherein it became a 101-win juggernaut one season after finishing 78-84.
It shocked precisely no one, then, that the Twins had seemingly espoused the same approach this offseason.
Rather than spend big to consolidate their power in the American League Central, the Twins were decidedly cost-conscious in their offseason wheelings and dealings through the first two weeks of January, ostensibly more intent on maintaining the gains made in 2019 than aspiring to something greater. They brought back right-hander Jake Odorizzi, who accepted his one-year qualifying offer, and re-signed veteran starter Michael Pineda to a two-year, $20-million contract but hadn't done anything remotely sexy in free agency; Homer Bailey's one-year, $7-million deal represented their biggest new addition.
Well, until Tuesday, that is.
With the division ripe for the taking amid the Cleveland Indians' ongoing effort to get worse and less expensive, the Twins made a decidedly off-brand move to seize control of the AL Central, reportedly signing All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to a four-year deal worth $92 million. His contract also has a team option for 2024 that can increase the total value of the deal to $100 million.
Never before have the Twins committed that much money to a free agent. Never before have they fielded an Opening Day payroll as large as the one they'll carry in 2020. (Right now, their total outlay is at around $139 million.) Donaldson's deal, moreover, represents the second-biggest ever given to a player age 33 or older, behind only the $105-million contract that Kevin Brown received from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998. Given both the state of the AL Central and the medium-term outlook of their roster, though, the Twins had no compelling reason not to go against type, resist their compulsive risk-aversion, and spend big on an impact talent like Donaldson.
For one, the deal unequivocally cements the Twins as the division's best team in the short term, with the addition of Donaldson ensuring against the probability of regression from some of the club's breakout stars from a year ago. (Between Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver, and Luis Arraez, there were plenty.) Despite his age - he turned 34 a few weeks before New Year's - Donaldson remains one of the game's premier players, having accrued 4.9 WAR while managing a .900 OPS (132 wRC+) and playing exceptional defense over 155 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2019. In short, his presence in the lineup is a boon to Minnesota both offensively and defensively; with Donaldson around, the Twins not only get to use Marwin Gonzalez in the super-utility role he's better suited to - he was previously expected to play first base on a regular basis - but can also move the defensively challenged Miguel Sano from third to first. Moreover, Donaldson turns an elite lineup into, potentially, a historically excellent one. The Twins set a major-league record with 307 homers in 2019, after all, and finished with the majors' third-highest wRC+ (116). Juiced ball or not, they're going to continue raking in 2020.
Given his age, the possibility certainly exists that Donaldson loses his mojo in the near future. Considering the composition of their roster, however, the Twins are well equipped to survive should he disintegrate sooner rather than later. (And, unlike his other reported suitors, the Twins play in the American League, allowing Donaldson to slide into a designated hitter role when the time comes.) The Twins have very little long-term money committed, and their only three players currently under contract beyond 2021 (Kepler, Sano, and Polanco) seem destined, in the wake of their impressive 2019 seasons, to earn less down the road than they would've had they simply gone through the arbitration process. Regardless, thanks to the relative youth of Minnesota's core players and the team's prescience in locking up those three building blocks, Donaldson's salary won't preclude the Twins from spending freely - insofar as they do - in 2022 and 2023; even after accounting for Donaldson's $23 million, the Twins have only $44 million on the books for the penultimate season of his deal and less than $42 million for the final year.
Let's not waste too much time analyzing a deal for a 34-year-old star through the lens of its demonstrably inconsequential long-term financial implications, though. Ultimately, the Twins signed Donaldson because he elevates them in the near term from a good team that's still a tier below the league's top clubs to a really good team that will be incredibly difficult to unseat in the AL Central and, more importantly, won't be a pushover again come October.
Sometimes, it seems, even the league's most frugal teams realize it's better to be good than opportunistic.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.