Power Ranking Shortstop Options for the Twins
If Minnesota makes a move at short, there are still ample options
As we’ve discussed in this space before, the Minnesota Twins appear to have at least a reasonable chance of adding a shortstop to the roster before the end of the offseason — a day which is quickly approaching.
As we assess the options available to the Twins, there are three free agents who fit the bill as those good enough to displace Jorge Polanco as the regular guy over there, and potentially two available via trades as well.
Now why exactly are the Twins looking to move Polanco at short?
It’s not really — in my estimation — a reaction to anything Polanco has really done specifically. Polanco wasn’t great in 2020 — .258/.304/.354 (80wRC+) — but that’s a 60-game sample that’s already being thrown out like a baby with the bathwater even before considering he was dealing ankle issues which required surgical intervention for the second straight offseason.
No, adding a shortstop is more about the Twins standing at the curious corner of already being good with most positions largely spoken for, but a desire/need to add more talent in a division that’s quickly shaping up to be a two-team race.
Regardless of if the Twins add a shortstop, they’re going to sign either Nelson Cruz or someone who can DH or play LF in some form. I believe these situations are not inversely correlated.
Why shortstop makes sense is that they need insurance for Josh Donaldson at third base. Wait, does that make sense?
Yes. Let me explain why.
The hope is that Donaldson stays healthy enough to play, let’s say, 150 games in 2021. Maybe 135 of them come at third base and another 15 at DH. That leaves maybe 30 or so games at third base even if things to go plan — and potentially quite a few more if they don’t.
If the Twins add a shortstop, that frees up either Polanco or Luis Arraez to move around based on matchups and that sort of thing, since it’s all but assured Miguel Sano is never putting his third base shoes back on.
If everyone stays healthy, this puts the Twins in the position of “a good problem to have.” Nobody says much about the Los Angeles Dodgers having too many good players when guys like Kiké Hernández, Chris Taylor, Max Muncy or A.J. Pollock could come off the bench at any point.
And at the end of the year, they end up using every last one of them a fair bit.
But teams can only add those players when they’re available — either via trades or most easily, in the winter in free agency.
There’s no penalty for overpreparation, and it also keeps a team from having to pay a premium to make an in-season trade for a player whose life is essentially thrown into flux for a while as they go from one team to another.
All of which is just a fancy way of saying it’s just so much easier to sign free agents rather than make trades since cash carries a lot less attachment than specific prospects in most organizations.
And if Donaldson gets injured on, say, June 1 — there’s nobody out there to sign.
And as we’ve noted before, shortstop is a unique beast this winter. There are still three MLB-caliber starters available. They’d each be good fits for the Twins. They each are looking to secure the bag in front of what’s bound to be a really wild year for a select few shorstops.
Not only is MLB going to deal with contentious CBA negotiations coming up, but the free-agent shortstop class next year is stacked with Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa all potentially hitting the open market.
Will that bizarre winter to come make one or more of these guys more likely to take safe money from the teams they’re currently with, like $100 million over five years rather than trying to get $120 million in free agency — hypotheticals here — if it all comes down to it? We don’t really know at this point.
But similarly, this trio of free-agent shortstops is kind of the appetizer sampler to next year. Are teams going to over-extend this winter when next year has a bumper crop of guys who’ll be younger?
This year’s crop is Didi Gregorius (31 on Opening Day 2021), Andrelton Simmons (31) and Marcus Semien (30).
One year from now, you’ll possibly see Story (29), Seager (27), Correa (27), Baez (29) and Lindor (28) hit the market.
If the Twins have been anything consistently in free agency under Thad Levine and Derek Falvey, it’s been opportunistic. Grabbing a 30-something, very good shortstop while the rest of the league is hibernating for next winter to fill out an already good roster feels like the exact kind of move they’d be itching to make.
So let’s handicap the field (power-ranking style):
No. 1: Didi Gregorius
This isn’t for the reason one might think, though. Sure, Gregorius has absolutely throttled the Twins at Target Field. No seriously, in 19 games he’s hit a ridiculous .418/.451/.761 — his best line in any stadium he’s played with any regularity at.
But none of that has ever made any sense to me. It’s 19 career games for a guy who has played more than 900. It’s literally 72 plate appearances. If he was to sign with the Twins, he’d cross both of those marks at Target Field before the middle of May.
The most games he’s ever played at Target Field in any season is four, back in 2016. Teams don’t make decisions based on samples like this — and keep in mind it’s a handful of games at a time against the Twins across six seasons. Nobody he played against in 2014 still plays for the Twins.
And not only that, but playing for the Twins and playing against the Twins aren’t the same thing. It’s the same thing that came up with Josh Donaldson last winter. “He loves hitting at Target Field!” Well no crap, he’s a great hitter who came up when the Twins were scraping the bottom of the barrel pitching-wise.
And then he joined the Twins and promptly hit .182/.302/.409 at Target Field in 2020.
Now that’s using bad data to refute bad data. Donaldson only played 16 games at Target Field in 2020 — but now you might be seeing my point. A player “loving hitting at a stadium over their career” is nothing more than eyewash and not an actual, meaningful talking point.
It’s not why the Twins should want Gregorius, anyway.
To put it simply — Gregorius is just a really, really good ballplayer. He was a four-win player in 2017 and 2018, and over that span his per-162-game averages were 32 homers, 104 RBIs and even a few steals besides.
He had Tommy John surgery which cost him half of the 2019 season, and he hit just .238/.276/.441 on the road back from it. That would be more troublesome if he didn’t pick up right where he left off last season with a .284/.339/.488 line with the Phillies in 60 games. Over 600 plate appearances, that was a Fangraphs WAR pace of 3.5 — or just a touch under the 4.0 mark Polanco put up in 2019 but has not seriously approached in any other season.
Defensively, Gregorius can be a bit of a mixed bag. He has graded out positively in every big-league season he’s appeared in with the exception of 2014 (minus-1.6 runs in 80 games), most often settling in the range of 5-10 defensive runs above average as far as Fangraphs is concerned.
On the Outs Above Average leaderboard at Statcast, Gregorius was tied for 23rd with minus-1 OAA out of 39 total qualifiers. Polanco was 19th at exactly zero, Semien was tied for 33rd at minus-3 and Simmons also had minus-1.
Now to remove some of the noise from a shorter season, here’s how each of those guys rated in 2019:
Gregorius: minus-14 OAA (34th of 35 qualifiers)
Semien: minus-4 (23rd)
Simmons: plus-16 (2nd)
Polanco: minus-16 (last)
For comparison’s sake, let’s just dive back to 2018 as well:
Gregorius: minus-7 (34th of 37 qualifiers)
Semien: minus-3 (28th)
Simmons: plus-12 (3rd)
Polanco: minus-5 (31st)
By UZR, which is easy enough to find at Fangraphs, here’s how each of the guys has ranked over the last three seasons:
Gregorius: plus-0.4 (11th of 20 qualifiers)
Semien: plus-2.1 (4th)
Simmons: plus-0.8 (did not qualify)
Polanco: plus-1.6 (5th)
Gregorius: plus-0.2 (did not qualify)
Semien: plus-6.7 (5th of 21 qualifiers)
Simmons: plus-10.4 (did not qualify)
Polanco: minus-9.1 (20th)
Gregorius: plus-3.9 (9th of 22 qualifiers)
Semien: plus-8.3 (3rd)
Simmons: plus-19.7 (1st)
Polanco: minus-3.9 (did not qualify)
So again, it’s kind of a mixed bag. Statistics rank from “quite good” to “shaky” on Gregorius defensively, but he gets the nudge into the No. 1 spot on the basis of potentially good defense but likely very good offense.
No. 2: Andrelton Simmons
Simmons only played in 30 games in 2020 and ultimately opted out of the rest of the season in late September, and is likely the only one of the three who will take a one-year deal this winter. That makes sense if the Twins want to keep the spot warm for Royce Lewis, and it also makes sense if the team wants the best possible defender out there for a team that just added J.A. Happ, who can be fairly batted-ball reliant.
But is Lewis’ future on the dirt? Or will he be the team’s next center fielder if they can’t keep Byron Buxton around? Will he eventually move all over the diamond as well? Is he going to be ready to play in the big leagues within the next year with the 2020 season being a total wild card as it pertains to development?
Offensively, Simmons is not the kind of guy a team displaces Polanco for. His best offensive season came when he hit .292/.337/.417 (106 wRC+) for the Angels in 2018. He’s dealt with wrist issues in the interim and has seen his line waver, but he’s a career .269/.317/.379 hitter. That’s a 90 wRC+ and he’s generally been in that ballpark since establishing himself as a big leaguer in the mid-teens.
His defensive numbers are prodigious no matter how you look at them, though they did take a slight step back in the truncated 2020 season.
But watch this video and say you wouldn’t find room for him at shortstop:
You pretty much can’t.
Simmons is second on this list because he brings a definite, different aspect to the team but isn’t quite the all-around difference-maker Gregorius can be.
No. 3: Marcus Semien
So why third for Semien?
He checks off quite a few boxes the Twins want to cover most likely:
high-end potential with the bat
What I think might hurt Semien here is his perception.
He was an MVP candidate in 2019 when he hit .285/.369/.522 (138 wRC+) with plus-plus defense. He never came close to it before and wasn’t particularly close to it last year. Some of the gains that season were unsustainable — 33 home runs in the year of the bouncy ball — but he walked a career-high 11.6 percent of the time and slashed his strikeouts down to 13.7 percent.
The strikeouts popped back up to 21.2 percent in 2020 — which still isn’t awful — but he retained most of the walks (10.6 percent) so there’s still plenty of reason to believe the offensive profile is there in terms of a frame.
He’s hit 25-plus homers before, but it was back in 2016 when the rest of his game wasn’t as developed as it is now. He didn’t walk as much, only hit .238 (career mark .254) and his defense wasn’t quite there yet.
If he can match his career line of .254/.322/.425 (105 wRC+) he’d be an asset. The problem is, though, he’s never really been that exact player. He, again, had a 138 wRC+ in 2019. He’s been under 100 every other season he’s played.
And therein lies the issue with taking the averages sometimes. If you throw a pitch 100 mph and the next falls out of your hand and doesn’t register, your average is 50 mph despite the fact that you never really were there.
It’s not fair to hold a wacky 60-game sample against Semien in 2020. He hit .223/.305/.374, was worth a shade over a win and had a .260 BABIP. Normalizing all of that probably gets a guy somewhere in the vicinity of a three-win season.
But is his price still going to be driven up by the proximity of his 2019 season? Is he going to want a longer-term contract as he heads into his 30s? (To be fair, this is also a question with Gregorius.)
My assumption was that Simmons probably gets one year in the vicinity of $8-10 million, Gregorius is somewhere in the $13-15 million range and Semien probably in the $15ish million range — AAV for the latter two, that is. I suspect they’ll each secure two-year deals, most likely after holding out all winter for longer and yet still getting enough security to not hit free agency with all the youngsters next year.
Semien’s defensive numbers also took a bit of a hit last year via Fangraphs. After posting plus-15.6 and -14.1 runs in 2018 and ‘19 respectively, he was down to plus-4.4 in 2020. That brings him down to maybe in the vicinity of plus-12ish runs in a full season with no hiccups, though it does lead to the question of if the absence of Matt Chapman — a truly elite defensive third baseman who only played 37 games — mattered much.
If a shortstop like Semien can be propped up by a good defensive third baseman, that works when Donaldson is on the field. But at the same time, then the Twins probably don’t need to pay a premium for a player like that — since it should ostensibly also apply to Polanco, whose defensive numbers, to be fair, did look better in 2020 even with the ankle issue.
In all honesty, the free agent rankings are subjective and it could easily be 1a-1c in whatever way you wish to rank them.
For a tl;dr summary:
Gregorius - good on both sides of the ball, probably a little cheaper than Semien
Simmons - game-changer defensively who gives team different dimension
Semien - still feels like 2019 drives his price up a bit, but still would be a good get
Of course, I’ll have an exhaustive breakdown if/when the Twins add one of these guys — if I have any words left to share.
No. 1: Trevor Story
If the Twins want to shoot for the freaking moon, this is the guy to do it for. Well to be fair, it might have also been Lindor, but Story isn’t in the AL Central — which clears up an immediate potential issue to any sort of trade happening.
Story is what Troy Tulowitzki would have been if he’d have stayed healthy and could run a bit. He’s a career .277/.343/.535 hitter, which is just a 114 wRC+ with his home games being played at Coors. However, if DJ LeMahieu has proven anything in recent seasons, it’s that the Coors effect might be harder to project than we realized.
By comparison, a .370 wOBA (his 2020 mark) would have been closer to a 135ish wRC+ if he’d done it with the Twins. Donaldson’s mark with the Twins last year was .362 and his wRC+ was 129.
There’s nothing on the field Story doesn’t do well. He hits the ball hard (average exit velo is 90.5 mph for his career), hits it in the air and is a tremendous defender. He ranked 30th in MLB in sprint speed last season — 28.9 feet per second — which was faster than any qualified Twin other than Byron Buxton (30.0). He was even faster (29.2) in 2019.
If you like traditional stats, he’s got a season apiece of scoring and driving in 100 runs. He has two seasons of 30-plus homers and has two seasons of 30-20 (homers/steals). He’s a career .277 hitter, though that’s largely weighed down by him hitting just .239 in 2017 (he’s hit .292 since).
In a year where the trade market has been weird, it would be so Twinsy for them to trade for Story and hand him a big contract extension as the potential of telling him they want to take care of him ahead of possible labor strife — and also secure any uptick he might have left in his game heading into his age-28 season, even despite leaving Coors.
This would be an A++++ proposition, and the easy No. 1 if we combined free agents and trades into one power ranking — which we didn’t because it didn’t feel like the denominators had enough in common.
The cost would likely be multiple top prospects, but there’s almost no doubt it would be worth it.
No. 2: Javier Baez
Baez would excite the casual fan base more than Story, but he’s not quite on his level. In a manner of speaking, Baez is what happens if you take Eddie Rosario and give him incredible defensive skills at shortstop.
That’s a damn fine player — second in NL MVP balloting in 2018 — but it’s certainly worth wondering what he’ll look like in a couple years. We can forget the horrible 2020 he had with the Cubs (.203/.238/.360 in 59 games), but he’s a career .264/.304/.473 hitter with six times as many strikeouts as walks.
A lot of that excitement can wear off as a player ages and can’t do the things he used to athletically. And while there’s no reason to lump Baez into that conversation, the price to acquire him would certainly be worth monitoring.
And to be fair, the same holds true for Story. If the deal is for just the 2021 season, the Twins are very clearly going to value these players differently. The market has not been particularly healthy for players with big salary figures coming off good 2020 seasons, let alone tough ones like Baez.
Baez will get nearly $12 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility. It’s not entirely unlike the Kris Bryant situation brewing in Chicago, where he’s getting nearly $20 million and already has one foot out the door.
And maybe we’ll talk about Bryant another day as well, as he could be a fit with is his 3B/COF profile. But nevertheless, if the Twins can’t land the big fish with Story, Baez is by no means a small fish. He would be a terrific fit on any team, and is clearly capable of being a starting shortstop on a team with championship aspirations.