Twins

Polanco's Resurgence Indicates That the Twins Can Compete Next Year

Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski (USA TODAY Sports)

Jorge Polanco has been one of the lone bright spots for the Minnesota Twins this season. In his first season moving over to second base, Polanco has hit .272/.333/.484 with a .349 wOBA. It’s hard to think now in August that his future with the club looked in jeopardy back in April.

Polanco has proved himself to be a core member of the Twins since the team first started to compete for the postseason again during the 2017 season by slashing .256/.313/.410 and a 1.6 fWAR. After an 80-game suspension in 2018, he earned himself a contract extension leading up to the 2019 season.

He had a career year in 2019, making that contract feel like a downright steal. The shortstop hit .295/.356/.485, recording a 4.0 fWAR and hitting 22 home runs on his way to earning his first career All-Star appearance as the American League’s starting shortstop. Polanco not only cemented himself as a starter on a playoff team but as one of the main contributors of the nucleus of those Twins teams.

A down year last year was followed by an ankle surgery that many pointed to as the cause of his struggles. In the shortened 60-game season, Polanco hit .258/.304/.354 with just four home runs and a career-low .289 wOBA clip. A whole season of games on a healthy ankle, along with getting comfortable transitioning to a new full-time position at second base, had Twins fans and coaching staff hopeful for a bounce-back season, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

After the first month of the season, Polanco continued to struggle at the plate. His numbers looked worse than the previous season with a .207/.268/.287 slash line and just one home run through April. The poor start from Polanco also correlated with the Twins rough 9-15 record to start the season. With the regression of the pitching staff and lineup staples like Polanco, it looked like the Twins were on their way to begin another long rebuild after just a few seasons of playoff contention.

But Polanco got back into form physically and that showed at the plate as the season went along. Even though the Twins record never improved, Polanco ascended and was once again one of Minnesota’s best hitters. It’s been a one-man show since Nelson Cruz’s departure. He leads the Twins with a 2.8 fWAR and 61 RBIs, and his 16.4 percent strikeout rate remains one of the lowest on the team.

However, Polanco’s power has been the biggest part of his game that has improved. His 22 long balls in 2019 were a career high, and he is set to smash that after already hitting a team-leading 20 bombas in 105 games this season. The .212 isolated power clip, 8.7 percent barrel rate, and 89.1 MPH average exit velocity are also career highs.

Polanco isn’t just one of Minnesota’s best hitters, he’s one of the best hitters in the American League in the second half of the season. Since July 10, his .347 batting average is second in the AL, and he’s leading the junior circuit with 10 home runs, 26 RBIs, 21 runs scored, and a 1.100 OPS clip during that span.

Another area that should be an encouraging sign? Polanco managed to keep himself healthy this season. He is one of only two Twins players to miss spending time on the injured list and the lone position player to do so. The second baseman has kept himself in the lineup and can still be flexible in the field. Polanco has logged 83 games at second base but also has a handful of games back at shortstop (26 appearances).

A great season from Polanco won’t do anything to turn around a miserable 2021 season, but it can show the Twins front office that competing for the postseason again may not be so far away.

The biggest reason why the Twins have struggled this season has been their pitching, which is 26th in the majors with a 4.95 team ERA. However, their lineup has continued to produce. The Bomba Squad era may be over but Minnesota’s 161 home runs hit this season ranks third in all of baseball. They also rank 11th with 520 runs, and are tied for ninth with a .322 wOBA. Polanco’s offensive resurgence has been a big reason why the Twins offense has remained so impactful.

Aaron Gleeman of The Athletic pointed out last week Minnesota’s woes when giving up more than five runs in a game. Updating that stat to this week, the Twins have a 3-44 record when giving up more than five runs and 45-21 when the pitching staff can hold teams below that mark. The pitching is obviously going to take time to work itself out, but the Twins have shown they’re still more than capable of being a winning team even if the pitching hasn’t been dominant. The 2017 Twins are a good example of this dynamic: The offense can will the team to relevancy while the pitching staff holds their own as the team grows into their full potential.

Polanco has shown again that he can be one of the core players on a winning team. Except his role would look different from Minnesota’s last few seasons of contention. Given how this season has unfolded, it looks clear that the team is focused on a new core of upcoming prospects including Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Royce Lewis, and the newly acquired Austin Martin. The role would move away from up-and-coming young players into being one of the veteran leaders to help guide the next wave of Twins into October again.

Minnesota almost traded several veterans who were a part of the current core after trading ace José Berríos and clubhouse leader Cruz at the deadline. Josh Donaldson, Kenta Maeda, and Michael Pineda were rumored to be on the trade block. Even members of the core like Byron Buxton and Max Kepler were being shopped. One player they weren’t going to give away was Polanco.

Part of that has been his contract, which continues to be a bargain for the Twins. According to Spotrac, Polanco is under team control until 2026 and his salary won’t go north of $10 million until the 2024 season. Not only do the Twins have a key player who is on a cheap deal, but it also gives them payroll flexibility to continue competing in the coming years. Some of those other players could get traded in the offseason, like Buxton. If the Twins decide to keep all of their veterans and combine them with other proven hitters like Mitch Garver, they will have assembled a lineup that can strike fear in opposing pitchers even as the younger players continue to mix in the lineup.

The Twins have had to retool their roster and rethink how they want to move forward. Polanco’s season shows that even if the roster is going to look different on the field from the 2019 and 2020 squads, they still have guys who can produce and accelerate their competitive window as early as next season.

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Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski (USA TODAY Sports)

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