Twins 2021 Position Analysis: Second Base
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel–USA Today SportsProjected Starter: Jorge Polanco
Likely Backup: Luis Arráez
Depth: Nick Gordon, Travis Blankenhorn
Prospects: Jose Miranda, Yunior Severino
Jorge Polanco might finally be ready to unlock his potential as a major-league player.
It still hasn't happened up to this point, mainly because he's always been limited by questionable defensive value at shortstop. Even in his All-Star first half of 2019, Polanco's appeal came more from his bat than his glove, and over the past couple seasons his flaws at short have become all the more evident and impactful.
Polanco is better-suited for second base. That much was clear to the Twins when they moved him there full-time in Triple-A, prior to his promotion to MLB, where he relocated to shortstop out ot necessity. This winter's signing of Andelton Simmons allows Polanco to finally move back to second, where his skill set is a more optimal fit.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the Twins are very high on Polanco's defensive outlook at the new (old) position. So is he. "I think I can be pretty dang good at second base," the 27-year-old told reporters recently.
Optimism is warranted. Polanco's shortcomings on the other side of the diamond were primarily tied to his inadequate arm, which led to cascading effects in terms of positioning and rushing plays, in addition to numerous throwing errors. With a shorter distance at second, he can let his strengths – athleticism, quickness, sure-handedness – take center stage. He'll almost surely be an upgrade over the previous tenant, Luis Arráez, who was more limited physically than Polanco.
It's not just defense that intrigues for Jorge Polanco the second baseman. His bat should also play very well at the position.
"You want to look at what he's capable of doing offensively and you put him at second, we may be talking about a top-five second baseman in the league," said Twins infield coordinator Tony Diaz (via MLB.com).
That sentiment might sound a little counterintuitive – he's moving over from shortstop, which is hardly an offensive powerhouse – but it's valid. If Polanco hits he'll be relatively even more of an asset at second than he was at short, based on league-wide norms. In 2020, second base had the lowest production of any position in the American League, with a collective .706 OPS (shortstops were .727). In 2019, AL second basemen posted a .726 OPS, 56 points lower than shortstops and lowest of any position sans catcher.
Of course, if Polanco hits the way he did last year, when he slashed .258/.304/.354, his bat won't be an asset anywhere. This brings us to his biggest positive at the moment: he's finally healthy. (We hope.)
Polanco's surgically repaired ankle was never quite right in 2020, and we've come to learn that it was a bigger problem than anyone let on. Polanco recently shared that he contemplated getting surgery during the season. The switch-hitter said he was routinely in pain and that the injury affected him especially while swinging lefty; against right-handed pitching, he slashed a paltry .227/.287/.318, a night-and-day difference from his .306/.378/.513 line verses righties in '19.
“He’s moving around really well,” Rocco Baldelli observed (per The Athletic). “Looks great. You can see it in his face. It’s been a while since he’s been completely healthy coming into camp. I think there’s an excitement level there for him and all of us to just watch him play and not have to worry about anything health-wise. It’s very nice."
These kinds of rosy remarks are the norm in early spring training, so they should be taken with a grain of salt, but in Polanco's case it's pretty easy to buy into the hype.
Theoretically, Polanco could be a great second baseman. But until we actually see it play out, it's only theoretical. He may have all the tools to excel at the position but the fact is, Polanco has played a total of five games and 43 innings at second base in the majors, and none since 2016. There's bound to be a learning curve as he reacclimates to the differing angles, movements, and mechanics of the position.
There are also defensive issues he'll need to iron out that supercede the unique challenges of playing shortstop, in terms of consistency and footwork. No matter where he's playing in the infield, he'll rarely see a throw shorter than this one:
Similarly, the idea of a healthy Polanco rebounding to his stellar level of offensive production from 2019 sounds great in theory, but needs to be tested in practice. He underwent ankle surgery prior to 2020 too, and it clearly didn't help much, so there are no guarantees with the latest procedure. Even if this repair takes, Polanco needs to prove he's a significantly above-hitter because on whole, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Polanco had an .866 OPS in 2019 when he appeared as the AL's starting shortstop in the All-Star Game. Since then, he has slashed .268/.327/.411 (.738) in 511 plate appearances. Prior to 2019, he had a .272/.329/.420 (.749) line in the majors. So, a preponderance of evidence leads us to conclude Polanco's half-season of brilliance in '19 was more of a fluke than the mediocrity we've seen since.
If he proves to be more of an average hitter, and an ordinary defender at second, Polanco won't necessarily be a liability, but he won't be any great asset either – perhaps not even an upgrade over the guy he's replacing as the second base starter. If we reach a point somewhere in the season where everyone's healthy and Arráez is outperforming the starter Polanco while in a utility role, it'll be interesting to see how things play out.
THE BOTTOM LINE
One way or another, Arráez figures to see a fair share of time at second base, filling in while Polanco is hurt, resting, or needed at short. We've grown familiar with what he has to offer at the position. But Polanco presents a very new look, and an intriguing one full of upside. As things stand, the Twins appear committed to him as their mainstay at second this year and beyond.
It'd be swell if that works out. Polanco is under contract for three more years with a pair of additional team options at the back end, so if this transition takes he could be in line for a Dozier-like reign at second base.
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