The Twins set a major league record for home runs in 2019.
They will field a better lineup in 2020.
They may not break their own record, because baseball is likely to remove the afterburners from the new crop of baseballs. But they will be deeper, scarier and even more combative.
That’s what the Twins’ signing of All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson means. The Twins signed him Tuesday to a four-year deal worth $92 million. They will move Miguel Sano to first base.
How can a record-setting lineup get better?
Last year, the Twins limited Mitch Garver’s at-bats because of the presence of Jason Castro. Garver is an exceptional hitter. Castro is not. This year, Garver will take the majority of at-bats at the catcher’s position. That’s an upgrade.
Sano will replace C.J. Cron at first base. Cron, perhaps because of injuries, managed an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .780. Sano, despite injuries and a pronounced slump, produced an OPS of .923, and one of .994 over the last three months and three days of the season. That’s a massive upgrade.
The Twins started last season with Jonathan Schoop at second base. He produced a .777 OPS. Luis Arraez beat him out last year and will be the second baseman this year. As a rookie thrust into a pennant race, Arraez had an OPS of .833. With his ability to take competitive at-bats, that is an upgrade.
Jorge Polanco remains the shortstop.
Donaldson replaced Sano at third. He had an OPS of .900 last year, compared with Sano’s .923, but Donaldson is a three-time All-Star who finished 11th in the National League MVP voting last year. It’s hard to call that a net loss.
Eddie Rosario remains in left and Max Kepler in right. Both produced power last year but could improve in terms of on-base percentage.
In center field, Byron Buxton played in only 87 big-league games because of injuries. If he is healthy, the Twins will be a far better team.
Nelson Cruz remains the DH. At some point he will decline, but he did not reach that point last year. Any regression from him should be offset by the Twins being able to pair two intelligent, veteran hitters in the middle of the lineup.
Cruz’s savvy and experience made an impact on Sano, leading to the Twins signing Sano to a three-year contract extension for $30 million. They don’t make that move unless they believe he has matured and that his new work ethic will carry him to greatness.
On Tuesday, Sano said he hopes to “double” his home-run total of 34 from a year ago, and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez predicted Sano will hit .280 or better with 40 or more home runs and 100 RBI.
“He’s going to be one the better hitters in Major League Baseball,” Hernandez said.
Sano also said he wants to finish his career with the Twins. Donaldson could be here for five years if the Twins pick up his option.
The Twins could have the best-hitting infield in baseball next year, and they could keep it together for years. Polanco is signed through 2024 with an option for 2025. Arraez will be under team control until 2026.
The Twins’ farm system is deep in position players, and they no longer have openings in their lineup. Their top three hitting prospects are Royce Lewis, who is a shortstop but can play elsewhere, and outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach. The Twins now can afford to trade prospects for a pitcher if the right deal is available.
Last season, as the Twins steamed to 101 victories and a home run record, many fans lamented the front office failing to “go for it” by making a big midseason deal. Their worry was that 2019 was a rare opportunity to win.
The Twins hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to get the franchise back to the point where it could contend for a decade. The signing of Donaldson positions them to do that.