Should the Twins do Something at Shortstop?
As weird as it sounds, there isn’t a ton of room for the Minnesota Twins to add a dynamic talent this winter.
They could add a high-end starting pitcher, to be sure, but that really hasn’t been their M.O. under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine — at least not at market rate.
Offensively, they have good players in place at pretty much every position, or a top-level prospect who is within shouting distance of getting a crack at that spot.
Will the Twins re-sign Nelson Cruz? I have no idea. But if they don’t, I can’t imagine them swinging for the fences and paying market rate for someone like Marcell Ozuna.
It’s not that he’s not a good fit offensively; I’m just not sure how to balance his way-out-of-character 2020 season (175 OPS+) in 60 games following a collective 107 mark in 278 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in the previous two seasons.
Despite the ugly plays he’s had on highlight reels, he’s an OK-to-average defensive outfielder but probably isn’t the kind of guy the Twins need to jam into left with someone like Alex Kirilloff and/or Trevor Larnach being close.
Futhermore, signing a guy like Ozuna to a four-year deal while earmarking half or more of those years for him as the DH doesn’t seem like good process. Brent Rooker could end up being a DH. Miguel Sano could. Cruz works for the Twins because he’s a year-to-year solution at this stage of his career while still producing like a player 10 years his junior.
Obviously, the Twins seem fairly set in the infield. They’re more than set behind the plate. But if they truly want to grab an impact talent to take the next step — or weather the potential loss of Cruz — they’re going to have to be creative.
There’s no denying the Twins need a backup shortstop. Marwin Gonzalez could hang out there a little bit and Ehire Adrianza was probably the true backup, but they’re both free agents. There’s no way the Twins can hang their hat on Nick Gordon in any form or fashion in 2021. He might not even be a shortstop in the long term.
But getting creative to add an impact player could, in fact, be done in large part by finding a new role for an existing player.
That player is Jorge Polanco.
Now the takeaway shouldn’t be that this is a demotion for Polanco. In reality, it’s more about the strength of the shortstop position as a whole — not only across MLB, but potentially available in trades or free agency. Next year’s free-agent crop is even stronger, for what it’s worth.
By making a move at short, Polanco would be the de facto “backup” at short — while getting playing time all across other spots in the infield.
Given the injury concerns with Josh Donaldson, Luis Arraez’s non-existent pop against lefties or Sano’s general inconsistency, there should be room for a lot of playing time for Polanco in this scenario.
And nobody should lose sight of this. This is by no means an indicator of Polanco and how he’s valued by the team. After all, he was literally the All-Star starter in 2019 and is, by all accounts, a really, really good player.
But if they treat him like their Ben Zobrist — did you know Rocco Baldelli came over from the Rays? — that would be a way to keep his value while also infusing more talent onto an already solid roster.
There are multiple ways to skin this cat, metaphorically, as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic alluded to in a piece published this morning.
One is by simply signing a free-agent shortstop, of which there are a few quality options this winter. Marcus Semien is probably atop that list, though he’s coming off a tough 2020 season which saw him hit just .223/.305/.374. Similar caveats apply to Semien about how to weigh such a weird season, but his career wRC+ figures from every year since he became a full-time player tell a certain kind of trend:
2015 - 97
2016 - 98
2017 - 97
2018 - 96
2019 - 137
2020 - 91
So, was the 2019 breakout for real with the juiced ball? It was 162 games, it came with a drastic jump in walk rate and strikeout rate — which is probably a better indicator of possible true improvement rather than the career-high 30 home runs — in addition to his typical terrific defense.
If it was a true breakout, it came at age 28. That’s not an impossibility, but it comes at a point in his career where it raises some eyebrows as to if he can come anywhere near it again — small 2020 sample or not.
Determining what Semien might want in a deal could also be tricky. A one-year deal to rebuild value might make sense, but then he’d hit free agency next winter with Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa.
He could sign a two-year deal to bypass that market, but then he’d be hitting the free-agent market as a 33 year old looking for work in a market that has tended to freeze guys at that age out.
If he hits like he has for his career and plays good defense, he’s got value. He’s got a career 104 wRC+ and terrific defensive rates — but either one of those, or both, could theoretically be a thing of the past in two years.
So does he want a longer deal? Is such a thing even on the table?
Let’s assume the Twins look elsewhere for the sake of discussion — how about Andrelton Simmons?
(warning: video contains sensitive content not suitable for those who haven’t seen incredible shortstop defense)
Simmons is a legendary defensive player who never strikes out and has shown good, but not great pop in the past. In a good year he can probably be expected to hit 10-12 home runs. He doesn’t strike out, as noted, but also doesn’t walk. He’s among the best defensive shortstops of all-time, though there’s some question as to if he’s lost a step with the glove — even before considering if he can get close to the 102 or 108 wRC+ figures he posted in 2017-18.
In this way, Simmons might be a good fit for the Twins. He’s the kind of defensive player who can justify moving Polanco around, but also could cede playing time to Jorge if his play has in fact slipped and he’s merely a useful defensive player without providing much offensively.
Simmons is 31, but has also dealt with injuries — most notably to his ankle — that have potentially affect him on both sides of the game. That could lend one to think a return to form is possible — maybe even probable — in which a short-term deal could make sense for both sides.
That’s especially true if the Twins need to make room for Royce Lewis sooner rather than later. It’s hard to say where that stands; playing at the alternate site in 2020 was certainly better than not at all but also probably didn’t expedite his development in the way the team might have otherwise hoped.
If he’s somewhere between a half-year or a full year away, one of Semien or Simmons could make sense. So too could Didi Gregorius, though he’s more likely to get a longer-term deal coming off a solid season with the Phillies.
The Twins could also think bigger if they really wanted to. They have the prospects to make a bigger deal happen, and there are some terrific shortstops who could be added in trades.
Jean Segura is a nice player and he’s got a really good contract (about $45 million over the next three years if the 2023 option is exercised). The Phillies are in cost-cutting mode and there’ve been rumors they could move Segura and/or Zack Wheeler.
Another option — and it’s one Rosenthal floated — would be shooting for the moon for Lindor.
There are a lot of complicating factors at play here. Lindor is a free agent after next season. It’s unclear if Cleveland would trade him within the division. He would cost a ton in terms of prospects.
But prospect deals don’t usually blow up in teams’ faces — outside of the Chris Archer deal for the Pittsburgh Pirates, most recently — so while it’s easy to want to hang onto every single one of those guys in a strong Twins system, it could make sense to pare off some of that depth and turn it into a legit star shortstop.
Lindor and Cleveland are at an impasse in contract negotiations — if you can call it that — and the writing is on the wall that he probably won’t open the season with the team.
So what kind of deal might entice Cleveland to move him to the Twins? Let’s assume the Twins would probably have to deal two of their top four or five prospects. Let’s also assume they’d want some cheap MLB talent as part of the deal.
Is Trevor Larnach, Jordan Balazovic/Jhoan Duran and Arraez enough to get the phone call answered? I have no idea, but I think it’s a good starting point. In that event, the Twins simply move Polanco over to second base, start Lindor at short and sign someone Kiké Hernández to be their utility guy.
But if Cleveland just wants prospects, the Twins can continue to dig deep into that cache as well, and revert back to the plan where Polanco is the super-utility guy.
Would Lindor sign an extension with the Twins? It seems unlikely, but it’d probably have to be a part of the deal for the Twins to consider something of this magnitude. I don’t know if eight years and $200 million gets it done, but I think in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot we don’t know with the murky future of labor relations.
Mookie Betts was traded with just one year left on his deal and no guarantee of an extension. He signed an extension, and was traded for good prospects/players but not necessarily elite ones. Alex Verdugo is a good player, but he’s not Cody Bellinger. Jeter Downs will be a big leaguer, but will he be Seager? Will he be Gavin Lux? Would it matter either way since the Dodgers had both when they made the trade?
All of this is a long way of saying that if the offer for Lindor sounds light, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Sure, the Red Sox attached the boondoggle that is/was David Price’s contract in the deal, but I still think that didn’t drag the deal down to the point where Boston might have commanded some of the truly elite talent in the Los Angeles system, like Dustin May.
All of this is a really long-winded way of saying I don’t think Rosenthal would bring up the Twins and shortstops if he didn’t think there was at least a chance of something happening. And if the Twins can get Polanco 500-600 plate appearances as a super-utility guy — and I think they can — it’s far too good of an idea to pass up.