Rocco Baldelli said he spent a lot of time thinking about lineups last season, had almost daily conversations about some wrinkle or new possibility with bench coach Derek Shelton. The result was 145 different batting orders over the season’s 162 games.
Now he’s got Josh Donaldson to add to the mix, in the wake of the free agent third baseman’s decision on Tuesday to accept a four-year, $92 million contract from Minnesota, and it will be fascinating to see where the Twins’ manager slots in one of the more versatile and dangerous hitters in the league. Donaldson’s huge comeback season last year in Atlanta came mostly from the cleanup slot, batting right behind Freddie Freeman to form a formidable left-right combo. But that might not be the best spot for him in Minnesota.
For one thing, Nelson Cruz, another right-handed hitter, occupied the No. 3 spot in Baldelli’s lineup whenever he was available. Baldelli normally chose Eddie Rosario, his second-best left-handed power hitter — Max Kepler, who hit 36 home runs and slugged .519, normally hit in the leadoff spot — to bat behind Cruz. Baldelli could choose to keep that alignment intact in 2020, perhaps lining up Donaldson to bat fifth, a spot he’s occupied only 75 times in his career.
Then again, perhaps the left-right dynamic isn’t as critical for Donaldson, who experienced an unusual, but pronounced, reverse split in 2019. Donaldson normally feasts on left-handed pitching — a career .951 OPS catches your eye — but last year was an outlier. Donaldson batted .215 against lefties in 2019, albeit with a .395 on-base percentage, and hit only seven of his 37 homers off left-handers. He started the year 3-for-20 against lefties, and went 3-for-17 in September.
There’s a pretty good chance, however, that Baldelli may arrive at the answer several other managers have chosen: Bat him second. That’s where Donaldson hit during his best seasons, including his 2015 American League MVP season, and the reason is an obvious one: In addition to being an elite hitter, Donaldson’s plate discipline is among the best in the league.
The extremely patient Donaldson drew 100 walks in 2019, the second time in his career he’s done that. Know who the last Twin to draw 100 walks in a season was? You have to go back to 1971, when Harmon Killebrew reached that benchmark for the seventh and final time as a Twin.
Donaldson’s pickiness comes with a side effect — he took 52 called third strikes last year, a higher total than any Twin has had in the past decade — but all those walks would help a team that hit 171 solo home runs last year.