Reflecting on the 2021 Twins, Josh Donaldson could only characterize it in the most straightforward way.
"I mean, it definitely has been a tough season," he said. "All around."
The Twins started the year as American League Central favorites, with a single-minded focus on breaking their 18-game postseason losing streak, the longest such stretch ever for North American major sports. That didn't happen, as the team finished the season 73-89 this past weekend in Kansas City, dead last in the division and the third-worst record in the American League.
A lot of factors went into that failure on the field: a starting rotation that literally broke down, with only Michael Pineda left standing surrounded with rookies at the end of the season; a bullpen that only seemed to hit its stride far too late in September; and proven hitters struggling to find consistent production throughout the summer.
But just those issues, while not necessarily acceptable, would be understandable. Sometimes players and coaches don't perform up to their expectations. But what really made this season difficult is what Donaldson hinted at with that "all around."
The veteran third baseman — a former AL MVP, three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner — ticked off several challenges that put the team on its heels. Like the whole pitching substance scandal that Donaldson became a whistle-blower on after calling out what he felt was an unfair advantage for pitchers. But some aspects factored in well before the season even started.
First, the sudden passing of bench coach Mike Bell to cancer during spring training, leaving the team with a hole on the coaching staff and mourning a friend. Then a coronavirus outbreak about two weeks into the season, leaving the squad locked up in an Anaheim hotel and scrambling to make up games. The clubhouse also had to navigate conflicting opinions about the COVID-19 vaccine, including a vocal dissenter in shortstop Andrelton Simmons, but did eventually reach the vaccinated threshold for rolled-back safety protocols about two months into the season.
“We had guys here that were here earlier than what they were probably expecting to be. And to come here and have the expectations to perform right away, it wasn't the best situation for a lot of guys to be here and ultimately have success.”
The COVID-19 postponements and makeups were just the beginning of scheduling woes for the team, taking away some prized off days for tiring jaunts to the coasts, like the May 20 doubleheader at the Angels amid a 16-day run of games, or the Hurricane Henri makeup at the Yankees on Sept. 13 plus a doubleheader the next day against Cleveland because of another postponement.
Donaldson recalled that LA trip, having to fly that night after those games to Cleveland for the next series.
"Not only is it tough for those two games in a doubleheader, but that puts it on you for the next week, as well," Donaldson said. "What should have just been an off day and then a 45-minute trip to Cleveland, and now you're putting six, seven hours on the bird that you didn't have to do. When you're going into a season, you're not expecting that to happen, those types of ordeal. It taxes the team in different ways."
And that might have played out with the Twins' various injuries throughout the season. Donaldson himself pulled his hamstring in his very first at-bat of the season and landed on the injured list. He said that set him back from the onset, as he then spent several games after his return trying regain his feel and form.
Byron Buxton was the AL MVP in April but missed 40 games because of a hip strain and then sat out another two months with a broken hand. No. 1 starter Kenta Maeda ended his season with Tommy John surgery in early September and won't return until late next season. Top prospect Royce Lewis tore his ACL before the season even again, and promising rookie Alex Kirilloff last only into July before having season-ending wrist surgery.
Explanations for the rampant injuries vary from fallout after playing a shortened 2020 season to temperamental weather to angry gods. In the long term players can work on rehabbing, or in Donaldson's case, strengthening his legs throughout the offseason. Injuries in the short term forced young players into emergency call-up roles.
Nine rookies made their debuts this season for the Twins, including Gilberto Celestino, who ascended from Double-A to the majors when the team simply ran out of center fielders. Others, such Bailey Ober and Joe Ryan, became part of the starting rotation after most of it was either on the IL, traded away or released.
"We had guys here that were here earlier than what they were probably expecting to be," Donaldson said. "And to come here and have the expectations to perform right away, it wasn't the best situation for a lot of guys to be here and ultimately have success."
Donaldson framed this as one of the positives to take from the season, though. Nothing teaches like experience, and now these rookies who might have struggled in the big leagues have an offseason without pressure to work on every weakness exposed in the majors.
While Donaldson always tries to find the good parts of every year, he can't deny this was not one to cherish. And that ultimately does come down to all the losing. Since he started regularly playing in MLB in 2012, he's missed the playoffs only twice: in 2017 with Toronto and this year with the Twins.
"It's tough to see our team spiraling and not ever really catching traction," Donaldson said. "… There's factors in that to where it all kind of makes it difficult. But at the end of it, as athletes, we don't want to make excuses for poor play.
"… Our job is to be professionals and to go out and play to the best of our ability."