Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Image courtesy of Peter G. Aiken, USA TodayProjected Starter: Jorge Polanco
Likely Backup: Ehire Adrianza
Depth: Marwin Gonzalez, Ronald Torreyes, Nick Gordon
Prospects: Royce Lewis, Wander Javier, Gordon
Lewis is already in Twins camp this spring, at age 19. You don't often see a teenager with a stall in the big-league clubhouse, but then, you don't often see a player like Royce Lewis. The top prospect and top asset in the organization is now well on his way, and has been a central attraction in Fort Myers, even if he's been unable to get rolling due to an oblique strain.
His fantastic 2018 campaign, which vaulted him to consensus Top 10 status on national prospect lists, featured an impressive showing at the plate, but perhaps more importantly it convinced just about everyone Lewis can stick at shortstop. He represents the franchise's best hope of halting the SS carousel and stabilizing the position for many years, but we'll have to wait a bit longer before the young phenom can realistically step in.
Until then, Polanco is here and he's not a half-bad placeholder. It's been quite a ride for him up to this point – from an MLB cup of coffee at age 20, to a strong rookie showing in the second half of 2016, to the Jekyll-and-Hyde season that followed, and then a PED suspension last spring. But through it all, he's shown enough to convince the Twins he's a piece worth building around.
His 50-game ban was a low point, but when he came back in July, Polanco looked like his usual self, producing from both sides of the plate. He finished strong with a .310/.361/.460 line in September, bolstering confidence that his bat will remain an asset even if (when) he has to move off short at some point.
Dating back to September of 2017, almost 80% of Polanco's starts have seen him slotted into the second, third or fourth spots in the batting order. This year he projects as the de facto leadoff man, which – like playing shortstop – isn't an ideal fit, but a workable one. Polanco hasn't shown especially strong patience or on-base skills, but he's a switch-hitter who puts the ball in play with enough speed and pop to be dangerous.
Minnesota's farm system is rich in quality depth at short. Lewis could arrive by next year, and Javier isn't far behind him. The 20-year-old is coming back after a lost year, and has the premier talent to rise quickly. Gordon still hasn't ruled himself out at the position either. In a couple of years, the Twins might face some decisions. The good kind.
Depending on which metrics or measures you want to trust, Polanco is either below-average defensively, or one of the very worst in the league at fielding the position. Out of 42 shortstops who have made 1000+ plate appearances since 2016, Polanco ranks 34th in Defensive Runs Saved (-10) and dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-18.5).
Although he alleviated some of the concerns surrounding his glove in 2017, they came rushing back to the surface last year, when his shaky defense blemished an otherwise fine performance. Polanco committed 13 errors in just 76 games at short, and his penchant for bouncing throws to first may bite him more often with Joe Mauer gone.
Shortstop is one of the toughest positions to harbor a subpar defender, because it is the essential crux of your defense. If Polanco goes the wrong way at all, it becomes a major issue. The Twins are already looking questionable in the run prevention department.
But unless things are rearranged elsewhere, there's not much to be done. Gonzalez can play short, but he's probably no better than Polanco there. Adrianza and Torreyes are improvements, but not to the extent you're gonna replace Polanco's vastly superior bat with either.
So for now, the plan is just to hope Polanco can get better. That's hardly unthinkable; he's only 25 and is said to have been heavily focused on his D. But if not, the Twins will have to deal with frequent misplays at a key spot until Lewis is ready.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The health of the shortstop position in general for this franchise is excellent. Lewis is the second-best shortstop prospect in the game according to MLB Pipeline, and many believe Javier will be mentioned in the same conversation a year from now.
Polanco wants to be a shortstop. For now, he is one. If he can make a few defensive strides, it'll allow the Twins to wait more comfortably as their prized young talents develop. Then again, it would also surprise no one if Lewis is forcing the issue sooner rather than later.
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