How Twins will keep Donaldson healthy

December 16th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- is about as competitive as it gets in every aspect of his play, whether it comes to improving his swing, driving his teammates to be better or making himself available to play as often as possible. That's why the Twins signed him as the piece they hoped would push a competitive team over the top.

But after injuries shortened Donaldson's 2020 season to only 28 games and the former Most Valuable Player Award winner didn't make a playoff appearance for the Twins, the club thinks the time could be right to ease some of his workload in the interest of keeping him on the field when it matters most.

"JD, at this point in his career, is interested in one thing, and it's being on the field, it's being healthy, and the next step of that is being healthy also at the end of the year so he can help the team win the World Series," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "That's what he wants. That's where his mentality is. He's not stuck on the idea that he's going to play 162 games and he's in the lineup every day."

Baldelli and Donaldson had a discussion about some of their 2021 plans on Monday, when the pair connected on the phone and talked about the more robust medical regimen and playing time adjustments that could lead to the club's cornerstone third baseman being active for the club's next late-season push and possible playoff run. Considering Donaldson is 35 and has an extensive history of calf issues but is under contract through 2023, it's in both sides' best interest to work out a sustainable solution.

The Twins' skipper said the club could be more aggressive with scheduled off-days and possible appearances at designated hitter early in the season, with the hope that they'll use part of the regular season to build Donaldson up and thus have him ready to play more consistently toward the end of the season, when a playoff berth or a run deeper into October could be at stake. Donaldson didn't make an appearance at DH in 2020.

"Obviously, we're a different team when he's out there," Baldelli said. "He's an exceptional player."

The Twins were 19-9 when Donaldson played last season, and 17-15 without their third baseman in the lineup. Even though he started the season slowly, with a .614 OPS in seven games before he hit the injured list for a month with a right calf strain, Donaldson finished the season with a .222/.373/.469 slash line and six homers. He re-injured the calf towards the end of September and was left off the roster for the Wild Card Series, which the Twins lost to the Astros in two games.

"I think he needed that additional rest and recovery to make sure that he was in a better place," president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "There wasn’t a way to speed up time to get him more healthy at the end of the year, and that’s really what he needed. I’m hopeful next year, while we don’t know exactly what next year will look like, hopeful that we can maintain a good program for him."

Towards the end of his recovery last season, Donaldson was open about the fact that his mentality towards his calf injuries had changed since he first started experiencing the calf issues with Toronto in 2017. He noted that he had been stubborn in the past about not listening to his body during the recovery process in the name of a quicker return to the field, and that led to struggles with re-injury.

He also noted that the challenges due to COVID-19 considerations during the season -- the uncertainty of whether or not games would be played and limitations on indoor activities with the training staff -- played a factor in the injury struggles, and it'll also be up to both Donaldson and the Twins to be cognizant of those issues in an uncertain 2021 campaign as they forge forward with their more involved off-field training program.

"He is a guy who is a really, really smart baseball guy and he wants to figure out how we're going to get to that point," Baldelli said. "I think we're going to be creative. I think that we are going to work with JD and work with our medical staff and we're going to do this inclusively and have an ongoing conversation so we can keep him out there."

This also means that the club's offseason search for utility depth will grow more important, particularly in the infield. Marwin Gonzalez served as that multipositional option to fill in at third base in Donaldson's absence in 2020, but his .606 OPS makes it unlikely that he'll back with the Twins. The club also lost Ehire Adrianza to free agency, meaning that rookie Travis Blankenhorn and starting second baseman Luis Arraez are currently the only viable backup third basemen on the 40-man roster.

Even among the next wave of prospects likely to impact the Majors, only No. 1 prospect Royce Lewis is an infielder, and he has minimal experience at third base. That makes it all the more important that the Twins find a steady option to back up not only Donaldson, but also shortstop Jorge Polanco and Arraez, in free agency or via trade.