When the Minnesota Twins needed someone to fill in at shortstop midway through the 2014 season, they called on a spry 20-year-old shortstop with raw skills and minimal track record. Jorge Polanco hadn’t even reached the Double-A when they thrust him onto their major league roster. That cup of coffee only lasted five games, but it was the career infancy of the now-longest tenured Minnesota Twin.
Over the last nine-plus years, fans have seen many highs and lows, and Polanco is a perfect representation of that. He is one of the only members of the club to play for two different front offices and three different managers.
We’ve seen him get voted in as a starter in the 2019 All-Star game, fight through two ankle surgeries, and succeed in a new position. He also got busted for a positive test for a banned substance. And now, as he enters his tenth season in Major League Baseball, Polanco is readying himself for a few more twists on his roller coaster of a career.
It’s hard to say exactly what that means for him and the club, but one possibility is rarely talked about as Polanco enters the presumptive back half of his career. Could the Twins veer away from his insistence on being in the lineup every day possible? While a switch-hitter of his caliber is a valuable asset, his splits may have finally hit a fork in the road in 2022.
While Polanco has shown flashes of plus-ability when facing left-handed pitchers (.804 OPS from 2020-2021), his career as a whole has painted a picture of a below-average contributor in those situations. Over his big league tenure, Polanco has performed 7% below league-average when facing southpaws. He has a .721 OPS and a double-play rate that is more than double his rate when facing righties. It’s never been a staggering imbalance for the infielder – until last year.
In 2022, Polanco had a brutal .226/.293/.308 slash line against lefties, and never really found his footing from the right side of the batter’s box. His performance was roughly 25% worse than league-average, which was the third-lowest mark of his career.
Polanco also ended an incredible streak of never being placed on the injured list in his entire career when he was sidelined in late-August. Even though he is said to be relatively healthy heading into this season, Polanco still has yet to play in a spring training game. Instead, he and his oft-injured teammate, Byron Buxton, have been getting their work in on the back fields.
Are Polanco’s dreadful numbers against left-handed pitching and his ominous health status bound to carry over into the regular season? If so, how can the Twins mitigate the impact of these issues?
The solution might lie in a player they acquired to be a stopgap at another infield position. The Twins traded for Kyle Farmer in the off-season when it was unclear if superstar shortstop Carlos Correa would return. Flash forward through a tumultuous market for the marquee slugger, and they find themselves in Minnesota’s plans for the 2023 season.
Correa will get the lion’s share of playing time at short, but Farmer will still fill in when necessary. When he’s not filling in for C4, the Twins would be wise to give the former Cincinnati Reds utilityman some time at second base, especially when facing a left-handed pitcher. This would spell Polanco and provide the club with a much stronger lineup, at least as long as the opposing southpaw starter is on the mound.
Just look at the damage Farmer was able to do in these situations in 2022. He had a dazzling .309/.380/.568 slashline against lefties, which was a whopping 57% better than league average and more than doubled the production of Polanco in that regard. It’s not likely that he’ll replicate that incredible number in 2023. However, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to assume Farmer would be a major asset when used as half of a platoon at second base.
Sure, that might be a tough pill to swallow for Polanco, who is known to pride himself on playing everyday. But at some point, the soon-to-be 30-year-old will need to accept a slightly different role with the club. 2023 is his last guaranteed year with the Twins (the club holds two team options for 2024 and 2025) and they have an abundance of infield prospects that are knocking on the door such as Royce Lewis, Brooks Lee, Edouard Julien and Austin Martin.
The clock is ticking for the veteran leader in the Twins’ clubhouse. Just as they called on him to fill a new role back in 2014, it may be time for them to call upon Polanco to take a step back in 2023.