Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Image courtesy of David Berding-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Jorge Polanco
Likely Backup: Ehire Adrianza
Depth: Luis Arraez, Marwin Gonzalez
Prospects: Royce Lewis, Wander Javier
When I counted down the top assets in the Minnesota Twins organization a couple months back, I had Polanco at No. 1, mainly because of that wonderfully favorable contract: The 26-year-old is controlled through 2025 at reasonable rates (around $7 million on average).
Fresh off inking his new deal, Polanco burst out of the gates with a ridiculously strong start in 2019. At the end of May his OPS checked in at an even 1.000, and he hung near the top of the AL batting race throughout the first half, earning himself a starting nod on the All-Star team.
Even with a second-half cooldown, Polanco still ended up logging excellent numbers across the board. Overall, he slashed .295/.356/.485 with 20 home runs, 44 doubles, seven triples, and 107 runs scored. A reliable everyday fixture, Polanco made 704 plate appearances – 108 more than the next-highest finisher on the team (Max Kepler at 596).
Every single one of Polanco's 150 starts came in either the first, second, or third spot in the batting order, reflecting how highly he was regarded by Rocco Baldelli as an offensive factor.
Polanco delivered this outstanding production at shortstop, where quality hitters tend to be at a premium. And there's a decent chance he's only getting started. It can be easy to lose sight because he's been around so long now, but Polanco doesn't turn 27 until July. He's still just entering the age range where skills generally peak.
In his early-to-mid 20s, he set himself a solid baseline as a big-leaguer, slashing .271/.327/.418 from 2016 through 2018 for a 100 OPS+ that was exactly average. Last year he shattered all previous benchmarks and reached new levels of performance, slashing ropes from both sides while ranking as the team's most valuable player per Baseball Reference's WAR calculation.
The Twins have the ability to keep him around through age 31.
Polanco's red-hot start at the plate in 2019 was offset somewhat by a late decline. After starting in the All-Star Game, he slashed .273/.341/.447 in the second half, gravitating back toward his previous career norms (.272/.329/.420). In September he posted a mere .706 OPS with six walks and eight extra-base hits over 102 plate appearances, though he rallied with a strong showing in the ALDS.
Polanco underwent ankle surgery in November "to address a chronic impingement injury stemming from repetitive stress" after taking on an intensive season-long workload, so it's very possible he simply wore down on a bum wheel. Something to watch.
Defense is the real concern.
Statcast recently unveiled a new metric, Infield Outs Above Average, which seeks to measure the defensive contributions of infielders. The initial rankings for 2019 included 139 players, and pegged Polanco at... 138. The Twins shortstop was in front of only Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a bulky 20-year-old rookie third basemen best known for his bat.
Granted, it's only one stat, but the IOAA assessment speaks to an undeniable reality: Polanco has mostly been a defensive liability at shortstop, stretched beyond his means with an erratic arm that is constantly manifesting in troublesome ways.
Among all MLB players, only White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (26) committed more errors last year than Polanco, and nobody had more throwing errors. In all likelihood, this problem will be magnified in 2020, because C.J. Cron – who led all American League first basemen in Scoops with 31 in 2019 – is being replaced by the inexperienced Miguel Sano.
The Twins smartly do what they can to minimize Polanco's defensive shortcomings, shifting him all around the diamond relentlessly and signing Josh Donaldson to bolster the left side, but he's barely tenable all the same. There's not a simple solution, though. Even if Polanco could be moved elsewhere in the infield (second and third are pretty well spoken for), Minnesota lacks standout gloves that might represent an upgrade at short.
Ehire Adrianza, who slots as Polanco's top backup, might be the best defensive shortstop in the organization at present, which isn't saying much because he's just okay there. Marwin Gonzalez is no more than an emergency option, and the same should be true of Luis Arraez, who played a handful of games at short as a rookie.
The minors offer nothing approaching a sure thing. Nick Gordon has all but fallen out of the shortstop conversation (always borderline, he was starting primarily at second in Rochester by the time he got hurt last year). Royce Lewis, the organization's top prospect, could stick at short, but the jury is very much out. Wander Javier is probably the best bet among upper-tier prospects to play shortstop long-term, but he's coming off a disastrous season at Low-A.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Locked in long-term with no obvious place to move, and no one necessarily coming up behind him, Polanco isn't going anywhere soon. So the team will just have to work around his defensive deficiencies, while hoping that his offensive output from the first half of 2019 was no mirage.
Given that he's still on the front end of his prime with a sturdy track record, odds of continued improvement or at least sustained excellence are pretty good.
Polanco was playing second base exclusively at Rochester before being called up in 2016, and has been worth negative-31 runs as a big-league shortstop (per DRS). His viability at this position is in doubt. The Twins have nevertheless run him out there for nearly 3,500 innings, and they don't seem inclined – or able, really – to change course.
If the long-tenured stalwart hits like he's capable of, we can live with a few extra runs sacrificed to the opponent, which is more or less the mantra of this Twins team as a whole.
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