The White Sox have realistic playoff expectations after a busy offseason that’s been among the most transformative in baseball.
But suddenly, the AL Central’s biggest splash of the winter isn’t one of the ones Rick Hahn has made on the South Side.
The Minnesota Twins injected some serious life into their somewhat ho-hum offseason Tuesday, with reports of a four-year deal for one of the biggest names on the free-agent market, third baseman Josh Donaldson. The contract spans the next four years and will net Donaldson a guaranteed $92 million, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, with an option for a fifth year that could extend the price tag to a whopping $100 million.
So the White Sox have this guy to deal with for the next half decade.
Donaldson has been one of baseball’s most productive hitters over the last 10 years, with 131 home runs during an insane four-season stretch from 2013 to 2016 that saw him finish in the top eight of AL MVP voting four times, including an MVP win in 2015. Injuries limited him in 2017 and 2018, but he was back with a vengeance in 2019, inking the richest one-year free-agent contract ever and smacking 37 homers for the NL East champion Atlanta Braves.
That bat now gets slotted into a Twins lineup that in 2019 hit 307 home runs, the most in a single season in big league history. Donaldson’s 37 homers get added to Nelson Cruz’s 41, Max Kepler’s 36, Miguel Sano’s 34, Eddie Rosario’s 32 and Mitch Garver’s 31.
In other words, gulp.
After winning 101 games last season, the reigning AL Central champs were probably already the favorites to remain at the top of the division, despite the Cleveland Indians’ electric starting rotation that even after trading away Corey Kluber might be baseball’s best. That Twins lineup can thump with the best of them, and bringing back Jake Odorizzi and (the suspended) Michael Pineda helped keep the rotation afloat, as well. Now they’ve got a legitimate, perennial MVP candidate in the middle of the order.
What’s that mean for those White Sox playoff expectations?
Well, the road to October just got a little harder. Cruz and The Bomba Squad crushed White Sox pitching a year ago, batting .281/.340/.518 with 39 homers and 122 RBIs off South Side hurlers. Now add to that Donaldson’s bonkers .333/.435/.686 line (with 15 homers) in 44 career games against the White Sox and that lineup is exponentially more menacing.
White Sox starting pitching is under enough pressure as it is, with big question marks about what kind of seasons the team will get from Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech. The addition of Dallas Keuchel at the top alongside Lucas Giolito obviously helps in numerous ways. Remember that Giolito had arguably his best performance of his All-Star 2019 campaign against the Twins, a three-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts Aug. 21 in Minneapolis. But with so much mystery elsewhere in the rotation, throwing Donaldson at them 19 times a year does not make things any clearer.
Donaldson’s also not going anywhere for a while. For a team with long-term expectations of contention like the White Sox, the Twins being more than a flash in the pan has obvious impacts on the White Sox being able to do just that. Yes, Donaldson is already 34 years old, meaning some decline would not be out of the question. But as Cruz showed last year, age and hitting moonshots are not mutually exclusive. Donaldson could help power Twins contenders for years to come, a direct challenge to the White Sox rising to be the dominant team in the AL Central for the foreseeable future.
As has been laid out here before, though, much like the White Sox offseason activity doesn’t hold the ultimate key to their ability to reach the playoffs in 2020 and beyond, neither does the offseason work of the Twins or Indians, whatever it ends up being by winter’s end. The White Sox fortunes will be determined by the continued evolution of their young core. If Giolito is a true ace, if Yoan Moncada is an MVP candidate, if Eloy Jimenez hits 40 homers, if Luis Robert sets baseball on fire, those will be much bigger factors in any South Side ascent.
Donaldson joining the Twins is a big deal, no doubt. But with all their young talent, the White Sox have the potential to match any move their division rivals can throw at them. They just need to reach that potential.