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Twins 2018 Position Analysis: Shortstop

In 2017, Jorge Polanco became the 11th player in 12 years to make an Opening Day start at shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. So long as he avoids injury for the rest of this month, he'll join Pedro Florimon (2013-14) as the only players to do so in consecutive seasons since Cristian Guzman left town.

However, it is anything but assured that Polanco will be back at the position in 2019 and beyond.
Image courtesy of Butch Dill, USA Today
Projected Starter: Jorge Polanco
Likely Backup: Ehire Adrianza

Depth: Eduardo Escobar, Erick Aybar, Nick Gordon
Prospects: Gordon, Royce Lewis, Wander Javier

THE GOOD

Around this time last year there was widespread skepticism surrounding Polanco's outlook as a major-league shortstop. By any fielding metric, his performance as a rookie in 2016 was brutal, magnifying the existing doubts tied to his defensive aptitude.

From early on last year, Polanco softened the harshness of critiques by showing significant improvement at short. Although still far from a stellar defender, he was no longer a liability at the heart of the infield.

His turnaround with the glove from 2016 to 2017 was overshadowed only by his emphatic rectification at the plate last summer following an utterly miserable first half.

Up until the All-Star break, Polanco slashed .224/.273/.323. For a long stretch in the middle of the summer, he was one of baseball's least effective hitters. His .276 OPS in July was the worst monthly mark for any MLB player (50+ PA) in two years.

Then, in August, Polanco went nuts, slashing a Troutian .373/.413/.686 with six homers to double his total from the previous fourth months combined. He came back to Earth in September with a .260/.345/.423 line that closely resembles his overall output in the majors (.266/.319/.415) and probably sets a fair baseline expectation going forward.

That absurd August notwithstanding, the switch-hitting Polanco doesn't profile as significantly above-average with the stick. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system pegs him at .246/.322/.415, which is perfectly adequate if he keeps making all the plays he needs to. But very soon the shortstop will be pressed by rising quality depth within Minnesota's system.

Twins Daily's 2018 top prospect list has three shortstops in the top 10: Royce Lewis (1), Nick Gordon (3) and Wander Javier (6). Teenagers Lewis and Javier aren't close to the majors yet, but have the makings of fast risers, and at 22 Gordon is knocking on the door.

Even fierce Polanco advocates would have to admit his skill set is more ideally suited for second base than short. If one of the prospects behind him establishes himself as a superior defender at the position, the door will be wide open after this year for Polanco to slide to the other side of the bag.

THE BAD

You get the question of, "Don't you guys think you have too many shortstops?" My response is, "I also don't have too much money in the bank." No, I will work with this problem of having too many shortstops.

General manager Thad Levine's response during an interview with Baseball Prospectus at Target Field last summer speaks to the luxury of possessing considerable depth at one of the most critical positions on the field.

His remark rings true for two seasons: 1) Shortstops are always in demand, and good ones will forever hold trade value in the event of a logjam; 2) Many outstanding athletes begin their pro careers at short, but a large percentage move away from the position as they ascend the ranks and standards increase.

That latter reality is weighing on Levine and the Twins even as they savor their present depth. Top-tier gloves at shortstop are huge difference-makers, and as discussed above, Polanco doesn't really have the upside to become one. Each of the upcoming talents in the system has his own set of question marks in this regard.

Javier probably has the fewest as a tremendous athlete with natural infield mechanics and a great arm, but he is 19 and hasn't yet played above rookie ball. Scouts lean more heavily toward Lewis – who didn't play shortstop until his senior year of high school – ending up in center field unless he can make serious strides in the infield (certainly not out of the question given his abilities). Gordon is closest to the majors of the three but may have the slimmest chance of sticking at short in the majors.

Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press published an article last July, just ahead of Gordon's appearance in the All-Star Futures Game, that included plenty of lukewarm (at best) assessments of his defensive chops at short.

His hands? "Good enough. Special? Probably not. But good enough? Yeah. Good enough,” said VP of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff.

Levine's take: "There are some things about his game which belie your prototypical shortstop. It’s not well-above-average foot speed. The arm is, I think, consistent but it’s not explosive."

An anonymous scout was less charitable:

“Watching Gordon, he never seemed to get the good hop. For him, it was always the in-between hop. That’s instincts. That’s footwork. That’s hands ... For me, those things just aren’t there when I watch Nick Gordon."

None of these unflattering evaluations rule out the still-growing Gordon as a future shortstop, but they're in line with the rap on him (no pun intended) going back a ways. For what it's worth, he has made more than twice as many appearances at second as at short for the Twins this spring.

So while Minnesota technically has substantial depth at shortstop, we don't know that this is true in practical terms. In fact, it probably isn't.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Finding stability at the shortstop position has been a never-ending battle for the Twins. They've finally found at least some short-term steadiness with Polanco, but his hold on the job is only as strong his arm – which is to say not extremely.

With Dozier likely on his way out after this year, Minnesota appears poised to go with a keystone combo of Polanco and Gordon in 2019. As far as how the two will line up, that could well be dictated by the way things play out this summer. With Javier and Lewis in the rearview, neither will be able to get too comfortable.

Nothing is set in stone, but the organization's shortstop depth – for now – is rock solid.

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23 Comments

Nice write up on this complex position.I think the revolving door will continue because the ultimate long term solution is in Javier and Lewis and Polanco and Gordon should be demonstrating their talents for the FO to use them in some key trades.I have heard comments in the past that prospects are accumulated to trade, but for me it is a different process.Develop them, debut them as their times come up and trade them for more strategic value.We have some key young prospects and I like to see them move into the lineup.If their maturation follows their potential we will have Romero and Grandol in the rotation, Lewis and Javier in the infield with Rooker, and Kiriloff in the OF.It is a nice future and it might be starting in the infield since we have already speculated that Mauer and Dozier might be playing their last season in our uniforms. 

    • MN_ExPat likes this
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SF Twins Fan
Mar 13 2018 07:47 AM

In the very small sample size of games / innings I've been able to watch so far this season it does seem like Gordon's arm is really weak especially since he's been throwing from second base. I know he injured one of his wrists earlier in ST, not sure which one, so if it's his throwing arm then maybe that is why.

    • adorduan and Minny505 like this

Wasn't long ago this organization had no depth at SS or 2B.Clearly that has changed.I have no idea who it will be in the near future or a few years from now, but the Twins should have a pretty good SS.

    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this
Long term my money is on Wander Javier. I think Polanco has it the next two years though.
    • gunnarthor, Twins33, dgwills and 4 others like this

Polanco responded well to failure last season. I'm bullish on that growth playing well for him this season.If he can improve enough defensively to be a middle-of-the-pack SS and hit the midpoint between his MLB career wRC+ and MiLB career wRC+,I think he will provide stability at the position for awhile.

 

It's nice to have prospect depth, but I'm not in any hurry to run a 24 yo big leaguer - who was once a prospect that everyone was salivating over - out of town yet.His best years are ahead of him, and I hope they are with the Twins.

    • TL, tarheeltwinsfan and MN_ExPat like this

No one complained much about Polanco's glove in August when he hit a ton. If he comes out hitting well, we can put up with an error or two except in crucial situations. Hopefully he continues to progress and makes it tough to decide whom to keep at SS come 2020.

 

Really looking forward to seeing Javier and Lewis develop. Speculation has them both at Cedar Rapids so I had better go early this year before they are called up, although I would guess Lewis starts at Fort Myers.

    • beckmt likes this
My version of the SS position is thus: I want a very good fielding SS who can hit enough to play. I prefer that to a very good hitting SS, who can field good enough to play. They could be seen as a trade off, except it's a defensive position by nature. Regrettably Polanco is in the latter category.

In the very small sample size of games / innings I've been able to watch so far this season it does seem like Gordon's arm is really weak especially since he's been throwing from second base. I know he injured one of his wrists earlier in ST, not sure which one, so if it's his throwing arm then maybe that is why.

Injury is to his throwing hand so hopefully that's the problem but I do see Polanco at SS over Gordon regardless.
    • Minny505 likes this
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AWOLNATION_11
Mar 13 2018 11:11 AM

Some interesting takes at Fangraphs about defense in this age of increased three-true-outcomes and fewer balls in play as well as fly ball revolution. Maybe an adequate defensive SS with a better bat is becoming easier and easier to run out there every day.

 

    • Nick Nelson, slash129, Platoon and 1 other like this
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bluechipper
Mar 13 2018 01:03 PM
I felt like this article was too negative on Polanco, especially at the plate. I think he's got .300 hitting potential.
    • Twins33, slash129, jimmer and 1 other like this
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Nick Nelson
Mar 13 2018 01:49 PM

 

I felt like this article was too negative on Polanco, especially at the plate. I think he's got .300 hitting potential.

That's certainly possible, especially considering his ability to avoid strikeouts. I'm just trying to be objective as I can. Polanco hasn't yet hit .300 at any level above A ball. 

    • USAFChief, ThejacKmp, bluechipper and 1 other like this
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Deduno Abides
Mar 13 2018 02:29 PM
Adrianza is better than Denny Hocking and Matt Tolbert, yet he seems like more of an afterthought than they ever were.
    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this

Some interesting takes at Fangraphs about defense in this age of increased three-true-outcomes and fewer balls in play as well as fly ball revolution. Maybe an adequate defensive SS with a better bat is becoming easier and easier to run out there every day.

I have considered this theory about the defense of a SS being less important in the game today. It may even be valid. But I hope not. Watching the athletiscm of a very good defensive SS is one of the joys of the game. But if because of the long fly ball becoming such a dominant part of the game, that is lost, the game will not be enhanced. I for one see nothing good coming out of watching guys hit fly balls, some of which even clear the fence, and striking out at record levels. Then again I may be simply a dinasour, and the newer fans will enjoy the new style. As usual, time, and attendance will tell. :)
    • dbminn, jimmer and MN_ExPat like this

 

I have considered this theory about the defense of a SS being less important in the game today. It may even be valid. But I hope not. Watching the athletiscm of a very good defensive SS is one of the joys of the game. But if because of the long fly ball becoming such a dominant part of the game, that is lost, the game will not be enhanced. I for one see nothing good coming out of watching guys hit fly balls, some of which even clear the fence, and striking out at record levels. Then again I may be simply a dinasour, and the newer fans will enjoy the new style. As usual, time, and attendance will tell. :)

Defense is my favorite part of the game.By a lot.

    • dbminn, Minny505 and MN_ExPat like this

I like Polanco, have ever since he first appeared. He seems like a Dozier type, the kind of player that works his tail off to improve aspects of his game each year. Wouldn't surprise me if he does stick at SS from sheer hard work and excellent form. 

 

Meanwhile, what happened to Royce Lewis being the next Derrick Jeeter? The hype sure did fade quickly. 

    • Twins33, TL and Broker like this
Too many shortstops is kind of like having too many pitchers. The more the merrier.
    • Twins33 and Minny505 like this

 

 

Meanwhile, what happened to Royce Lewis being the next Derrick Jeeter? The hype sure did fade quickly. 

 

I think any time someone gets hyped as a first-ballot HoF it's going to fade back a little, because generally those sorts of comparisons are stupid.

 

Royce Lewis still looks like a potential star. His bat is already looking great for his age and he definitely has the tools to stick at SS. I think a lot of scouts like to make statements like "I see his long term position being elsewhere" when talking about a player because it sure makes it sound like that scout knows something extra. Lewis needs reps at SS. I think he'll be just fine and will rise quickly because of his bat. He seems to have the work ethic and drive and to master the defensive side as well.

 

For all that Gordon's standing seems to be falling in the eyes of some, he sure seems to be performing ok. He's still got work to do defensively and had a bad slump last year, but still finished with a solid season at a new level. Did I mention he's never repeated a level, despite being drafted at 18? He's always been 2-3 years younger than the average where he's been playing, and keeps having success. That's a nice track to be on. Long-term does he end up at 2B? probably, but part of that reason is because Royce Lewis will take it away from him, not necessarily because he can't hack it.

    • MN_ExPat likes this
Gordon is in the top 100 prospects nationally, yet is constantly discredited on this site. Never got that.

As for defense, I was thinking about this in the shower this morning.... you're welcome for the visual....as athletes get bigger and faster, they will cover more of the field, just as basketball players do the court. Defensive deltas will therefore shrink, because the field is effectively smaller. That's my theory
    • MN_ExPat likes this

About what you'd expect, I think....

 

https://www.fangraph...ings-shortstop/

 

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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 21 2018 11:57 AM

 

About what you'd expect, I think....

 

https://www.fangraph...ings-shortstop/

Higher than I expected. With Polanco, I thought the Twins might crack the top half of baseball. Without him, I expected to see them further down the list.

    • flpmagikat likes this

 

Higher than I expected. With Polanco, I thought the Twins might crack the top half of baseball. Without him, I expected to see them further down the list.

 

They still get half of Polanco, and Escobar is not as bad as people here seem to think. Really, those two look about even on projections....but as the article says, Polanco you can dream on. Esco is what he is.

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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 21 2018 12:00 PM

 

They still get half of Polanco, and Escobar is not as bad as people here seem to think. Really, those two look about even on projections....but as the article says, Polanco you can dream on. Esco is what he is.

Offensively, they should be fine. I expected them lower due to the defensive side of the ball. Escobar is pretty shaky at short and Polanco is a question mark.

Polanco was still working through some kinks. He may not have been good right out of the gate this year so his absence may not hurt all that much. We'll find out.

 

We were all worried when Morneau went down a few years ago only to have Cuddyer turn into a superhero when it mattered. Now someone else gets that opportunity.


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