The futures of two of the Minnesota Twins’ longest-tenured players currently on the roster will be uncertain all winter. Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco have become the two mainstays for Twins fans for nearly a decade. Polanco made his debut in 2014 before working his way to becoming an All-Star. He’s currently Minnesota’s longest-tenured player. Kepler debuted in 2016, becoming a fan favorite and the Twins’ best defender of the Target Field era.
Kepler and Polanco were involved in the same international free agency class in 2009, debuted around the same time, and signed similar extensions before the 2019 season. Both were young players on the 2017 Twins team that broke a seven-year playoff drought and snapped the infamous playoff losing streak this fall. Even after the two helped the franchise reach their highest moment in two decades, it appears one or both might not be back in a Twins uniform next season. Minnesota will lower payroll because their $50 million Bally TV contract expires, likely creating tough decisions for the front office.
At first glance, Polanco or Kepler’s departure seems strange. The Twins picked up the 2024 team options of $10.5 and $10 million for Polanco and Kepler, respectively. A team cutting payroll could just decline their option to save the money or trade them before picking up their options. There could be a scenario where Minnesota keeps both. However, it would leave them little room to bring in free agents to address other roster needs.
However, shedding two starters may be aggressive for a team coming off of their best season in 20 years. Therefore, if they only decide to trade one, the Twins need to prioritize which player they should keep. Trade value will likely impact which player ultimately gets moved. However, assuming returns are similar, making that decision won’t be easy.
Some fans may be ready to move on from Kepler. Last winter, multiple rumors had the Twins trading Kepler before the season started. Despite being one of baseball’s best defensive right fielders, Kepler was coming off consecutive average seasons at the plate. The Twins also had a glut of left-handed corner outfielders on the depth chart a year ago. Minnesota was hoping for Kepler to have a bounce-back season, and he had a below-average 89 wRC+ in the first half. However, Kepler turned it on after the All-Star Break. He slashed .306/.375/.552 and posted a 154 wRC+ with 12 home runs in the second half.
Kepler’s second half rewarded the faith this front office had in him. After being proven right about Kepler’s ability, the Twins will likely double down on keeping Kepler this offseason, too. It wouldn’t just be a pride thing, either. All of the outfield depth Minnesota had at the start of the 2023 season dried up over the campaign, making Kepler much more valuable than a year ago. Joey Gallo is a free agent. Alex Kirilloff will likely stay at first base, and Matt Wallner can slide to left field. Trevor Larnach has yet to prove himself consistently at the big-league level.
But moving on from Polanco would be difficult, too. He isn’t just Minnesota’s longest-tenured player but also one of the most important. A hitter doesn’t stay with a club for ten seasons solely on nostalgia. The switch-hitting Polanco slashed .255/.335/.454 last season with 14 home runs and a 118 wRC+. He recorded a -5 outs above average rating fielding at second base. However, Polanco was also willing to play third base when the Twins had a late-season need. Even though it was just a 0 OAA rating in 15 games at the hot corner, it showed his ability to do whatever the team asks to win.
There’s no denying Polanco has been an important player, an ironman for the Twins over his career. However, he has started to break down over the last couple of years. Polanco only played 80 games in 2023. It was his lowest number of games in a full 162-game season since he only played 77 games in 2018, mostly due to an 80-game suspension. Even though he still produced, injuries likely had a hand in his 25.7 percent strikeout rate, which was a career-worst for the Twins infielder.
Hopefully, Polanco will be healthier in 2024 and produce close to his career level. Most corner outfielders outside Kepler couldn’t keep up last season, and the internal competition is low. In the infield, it looks like the Twins have some options to replace Polanco at second base from either side of the plate. Still, it seems the infield has become the deepest part of Minnesota’s roster heading into 2024. Carlos Correa is cemented at shortstop, Royce Lewis will play third, and Edouard Julien or prospects Brooks Lee and Austin Martin could all replace Polanco at second base.
The Twins will have to sort this out in the offseason. Still, it feels more likely that the Twins would trade Polanco if they had to choose between him and Polanco. He’s easily replaceable with prospects like Julien, who proved himself at the plate last season, or high-end prospects like Lee. Kepler is the better fielder in a position group; the Twins don’t have as much depth as a year ago. Polanco’s contract also includes a $12 million team option for 2025, which would net more return value for the Twins compared to an expiring contract like Kepler’s.
Of course, the Twins front office would like to keep both Kepler and Polanco. But their limited budget makes it tough for the Twins to add this offseason. They must sign another starting pitcher to replace Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda – or re-sign either of them. They also should add a right-handed hitting outfielder or get some bullpen help. A trade wouldn’t just be a straight salary dump, either. The Twins swapped Luis Arraez for Pablo López, so a major league for major league trade could certainly be possible, even if trading Polanco is a steep price to pay.
Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler have meant an incredible amount to Twins Territory over the last nine years. Both could make a case to be a Twin for life. However, budget issues one, or even both, could be on a new team in 2024. Kepler isn’t the outright better player, but the positional depth means Polanco is probably the more expandable option if the team can only keep one.