“Hey, Josh, we want you to sign here!” boomed the accented voice on the video. “Come join the Bomba Squad!”
Josh Donaldson knew the Twins were eager to get him to commit to Minnesota. Their offer to pay him at least $92 million made that abundantly clear. But this was different. This was attention-grabbing. The voice playing on his cellphone belonged to the player whose job he would be taking away.
“Josh, I’ll move to first base for you,” a smiling Miguel Sano said on the video he made shortly after signing a long-term deal of his own. “You’re the only one I’ll go to first base for!”
Only Donaldson knows how much Sano’s cellphone sales pitch swayed his opinion, or whether it eased any fears about walking into an awkward situation with the incumbent Twins third baseman. It’s pretty likely, actually, that his decision had already been made when he saw it. But the video, delivered during an early-morning round of golf by Donaldson’s friend Mardy Fish, a former top-10 tennis professional and lifelong Twins fan, added a lighthearted final act to a monthlong recruitment effort and contract negotiation, the most expensive and potentially franchise-altering such undertaking in Twins history.
“I texted my dad right away — ‘Josh says he’s going to sign with us! I think we’re going to get him!’ ” Fish said from Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he and Donaldson are competing in the celebrity bracket of the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. “It was exciting, just to know such great news ahead of time. I would have loved to tweet it, but I couldn’t break his trust.”
The news broke soon enough anyway. By nightfall, word had leaked that Donaldson, one of the 10 best all-around players in the game when healthy, had agreed to sign a four-year contract with the Twins with an option for a fifth season, the most expensive free-agent deal in franchise history.
“I saw him the next day at the pro-am [event]. I pulled the cart over, ran over and basically tackled him — ‘We got our third baseman! We got our third baseman!’ ” Fish, a former Edina resident who estimates he watched 155 Twins games last summer, said with a laugh. “I don’t know if I had anything to do with it in any tiny, tiny way. But I had been hoping for this for a long time.”
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Since early December, it became clear that the Twins — thwarted in their efforts to sign their top target, righthander Zack Wheeler, and alternatives Madison Bumgarner or Hyun-Jin Ryu — had pivoted instead to upgrading their shaky infield defense and their record-setting offense. Had a pitcher accepted their multiyear offer, the Twins probably couldn’t afford Donaldson, the team’s decisionmakers believed. Without one, though, the 2015 AL MVP’s combination of steady glove and stellar bat was an obvious choice.
A sharper-fielding third baseman than Sano could save the Twins perhaps a couple of dozen runs over the season, the team’s research showed, a major help to the pitching staff. And though Donaldson turned 34 on Dec. 8, StatCast data showed his swing has not slowed with age; his average exit velocity of 92.9 miles per hour in 2019 ranked seventh in the majors — albeit behind a pair of new teammates, Sano (94.4) and Nelson Cruz (93.7).
Fish didn’t need numbers to know he wanted Donaldson on his favorite team.
“Ever since it came out that he was thinking about the Twins’ offer, I was on him. Text messages, FaceTime [calls], Twitter. So many of them that it got to the point where he just stopped returning my texts,” said Fish, who met Donaldson at another celebrity golf tournament five years ago and stayed in touch during the intervening offseasons, in part by joining the same fantasy football league. “Maybe I was going a little hard, but I told him about the people, all the great golf courses there, the ballpark, the team. I know the lineup, top to bottom, and I told him how great a fit he would be.”
That was the central point of the Twins’ pitch, too, offered during a conference call between Donaldson, his agent Dan Lozano, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, General Manager Thad Levine and President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey shortly after the winter meetings in early December.
According to several sources inside and outside the team, the Twins emphasized their 101-victory 2019 season and their intention to keep adding to the core of players who got them there, essentially promising to keep the team competitive during Donaldson’s tenure. They told him about the prospects who are nearing the major leagues and their chances of continuing to lead the AL Central, where elite pitching is in short supply.
Baldelli spoke at length about how he planned to use Donaldson, and about the culture he and his staff had created inside the clubhouse, how players are empowered to prepare in their own way, without a lot of nitpicky rules. “Rocco is really good at connecting in situations like that,” one source said of Baldelli, whose experience as a player has informed his philosophy of rest and recovery. The manager, Donaldson told Fish, had made a strong impression.
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But nobody had any doubt about what the most critical factor would be: Money.
“This is going to be my 13th year [as a pro], and I’ve been on a lot of one-year contracts,” Donaldson said Friday in an interview with Atlanta TV station WSB. “The Twins were in a position to offer me a lengthy deal; I thought it was right for me and my family. Ultimately, that’s what the decision came down to.”
The Twins didn’t know that at the time. They didn’t know it for several weeks, in fact, as Donaldson’s agent waited patiently for the teams to squirm, and perhaps increase their bids. Falvey offered $84 million over four years, a $21 million average annual salary that would make Donaldson the second-highest paid player in Twins history, behind Joe Mauer’s $23 million salary.
But the team’s executives knew Atlanta, where Donaldson thrived in 2019 after signing a one-year deal last winter, would make a long-term offer as well, and Washington, fresh off a World Series championship but having lost third baseman Anthony Rendon, would bid, too. Texas and one or two other teams also were known to have made inquiries.
As the wait dragged through the holidays, the Twins grew pessimistic about Donaldson’s choice, believing that the Florida native and Auburn alum would prefer to stay in Atlanta, and suspecting that the Braves might outbid them. And when the Athletic published a story on Jan. 3 that said Donaldson “is simply waiting for one of the clubs to hit his number … believed to be in the $110 million range,” the Twins concluded they were probably out of the running. The story was widely believed to be an effort by Lozano to lure a high-payroll team like the Dodgers to swoop in, an outcome that seemed plausible.
Falvey and his advisers, sources said, decided they weren’t willing to add another $26 million to their offer, already $30 million larger than any free agent had ever accepted from the Twins, to meet the announced new price. But they still sensed an opening: The $100 million benchmark seemed important to Donaldson, and rumors around the league suggested he had received offers that met it. Yet he hadn’t accepted one, giving the Twins hope that the reports were overstated.
What if, the Twins calculated, we added a nonguaranteed team option for a fifth season, when Donaldson will be 38 and perhaps no longer a third baseman, at a reduced $16 million salary? If the option is triggered, if Donaldson is still highly productive, the total package would reach the magic nine-figure mark.
The fifth year seemed to jump-start talks again, especially when Falvey sweetened the offer by agreeing to guarantee half of the option in the form of an $8 million buyout, bringing the total guarantee to $92 million. It also gives the Twins just an $8 million decision to make in 2024, increasing the likelihood that they will exercise the option.
Finally, when the Twins agreed to add a little more to the best-case scenario — escalators that could add as much as $4 million to the option-year salary if Donaldson meets certain statistical goals during the first four years — the historic marriage seemed near.
Things went from “Let’s move on,” one source said, to “We’re a phone call away,” in just a couple of days.
Donaldson confirmed as much in the WSB interview. The Braves made a late pitch last weekend, he said, but “Ultimately [Atlanta’s offer] wasn’t in the same realm for me, financially.”
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When Fish arrived Tuesday morning to play a practice round of golf with Donaldson, just the two of them, ahead of the celebrity tournament, he soon learned how close a deal might be. He contacted a friend with the Twins, who taped and texted him Sano’s come-join-us video, which delighted Donaldson, Fish said. And within hours, the Twins got the word: It’s a deal.
“He seemed really excited, super excited. I know he kind of thought Atlanta would step up to keep him, but the more I told him about Minnesota, the more he loved the idea,” Fish said. “Man, our lineup is going to be so awesome. And I just love the way he plays, the attitude he brings. He’s a great guy, but when he gets between the lines, he doesn’t really give a bleep about anything but trying to win.”
Fish considers himself a winner, too. He extracted his own price.
“I told [the Twins], if I get this done, I want [to take] batting practice and [throw out] a first pitch,” Fish said with a laugh. “We’ll see if they hold up their end.”
Staff writer La Velle E. Neal III contributed to this report.