Why the Twins Will Either Sign or Trade for a Shortstop
The utter dearth of starting pitching for the Twins has been well-documented by now. Out of the 2022 equation are longtime top starter Jose Berrios and 2020 AL Cy Young runner-up Kenta Maeda; Berrios was flipped to Toronto in exchange for a pair of touted prospects at last summer’s deadline, while Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery late last year and hopes for a September return — in a best-case scenario. Also out the door is righty Michael Pineda, a free agent who could yet return but remains unsigned. Thus far, the extent of the Twins’ offseason shopping was a roll of the dice on Dylan Bundy. He’ll join rookie/top prospect Joe Ryan and sophomore Bailey Ober in a thin Twins rotation mix.
For all the focus on the team’s starting pitching, however, Minnesota also lacks an obvious starter at shortstop. Andrelton Simmons’ one-year stint proved largely underwhelming. By measure of wRC+, Simmons ranked second-worst among hitters with at least 450 plate appearances last season (56). His .223/.287/.274 batting line negated much of his defensive wizardry and was one of many reasons the Twins’ 2021 season went south so quickly. Simmons was never brought in to be an offensive force, but he’d at least been competent (and occasionally above average) in the five preceding seasons, posting a combined .281/.328/.394 slash.
In a perfect world, 2017 No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis might’ve been ready for a run at shortstop this year. An immensely gifted athlete who’s been ranked among the sport’s top 100 prospects since the moment he was drafted — peaking in the top ten, heading into 2019 — Lewis is seen as a major building block for the organization. Unfortunately for both the Twins and Lewis, he sustained a torn ACL while ramping up for Spring Training last year and wasn’t able to make it back to the field in 2021. Couple that with a 2020 season spent at the Twins’ alternate site during the canceled minor league campaign, and Lewis has missed some crucial development time.
By all accounts, the future is still bright — Lewis clocks in at No. 82 on Baseball America’s latest Top 100 ranking — but the lack of recent playing time and a major surgery have both added some extra risk to his profile and slowed his timeline to the Majors. There was always some question as to whether Lewis would settle in at shortstop or wind up playing third base, center field or second base, anyhow, and even if shortstop is still his future home, he’s not ready just yet.
There are similar defensive questions about fellow top prospect Austin Martin, the headliner of the Berrios trade. Martin, the No. 5 overall pick in 2020 who was viewed as a candidate to be drafted first overall himself, is a gifted hitter and on-base machine whose defensive home is less certain. The Twins will continue getting him work at shortstop, though some scouting reports believe he’ll end up at second base or in the outfield. Martin is considered among the 50 or so best prospects in MLB, but he’s had just one pro season and did not advance beyond Double-A last year. Perhaps he’ll be an option this summer if he mashes out of the gate in Triple-A and looks sound at shortstop, but like Lewis, he needs more time.
Up on the big league roster, the Twins have one well-known option who could slide back to the position. Jorge Polanco spent four years as Minnesota’s primary shortstop, hitting a combined .277/.335/.435 in 418 games from 2017-20. However, Polanco was never a good defender there, hence the move to second base and the subsequent signing of Simmons.
The 28-year-old Polanco turned in the best season of his career following the move to the other side of the bag, so the Twins may not want to tinker with a decision that yielded one of 2021’s few bright spots. Polanco erupted with a 33-homer campaign, hitting .269/.323/.503 through 644 plate appearances. He also turned in a positive showing in Defensive Runs Saved (3) and was only slightly below par in Statcast’s Outs Above Average.
[Related: Jorge Polanco’s Bounceback Season]
One could argue that the Twins should focus on pitching, move Polanco to back to shortstop and play Luis Arraez everyday at second base. However, doing so would weaken the defense (thus diminishing the returns on some of the pitchers they do inevitably add). And, whether it was correlation or causation, Polanco seemed more comfortable once freed from shortstop — a position where his -39 Defensive Runs Saved from 2016-20 ranked second-worst in Major League Baseball.
The Twins made some depth additions recently, picking up former No. 1 pick Tim Beckham and former Rays/Brewers utilityman Daniel Robertson on minor league deals. Neither is on the 40-man roster and neither should be seen as a candidate to step up as their primary shortstop. Either could vie for a bench spot, competing against Nick Gordon — a former top-10 draft pick who made his big league debut with Minnesota last season. However, Gordon mustered just a .240/.292/.355 output in 216 plate appearances and was used all around the diamond. A full-time run at shortstop isn’t likely for any of this trio.
Whoever suits up at shortstop on Opening Day for the Twins probably isn’t in the organization yet, so let’s look at some options.
The Big Free Agents
There’s probably not much point in pondering whether the Twins could or will sign Carlos Correa. Minnesota currently projects to about a $91MM payroll next season (per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez). That drops to $61MM in 2023 and $27MM in 2024. Technically, they have the payroll space to sign Correa to a mega-deal. However, starting pitching is likely a bigger focus, and the Twins have never gone anywhere near the Correa stratosphere on a contract. Joe Mauer’s $184MM extension is the largest deal in franchise history, and Josh Donaldson’s $92MM pact is the biggest free-agent splash they’ve made. Signing Correa for north of $300MM would be a legitimate shock.
Trevor Story is more plausible, financially speaking, but it’s likely he’s seeking a nine-figure deal of his own. A salary in the $20-25MM range isn’t the dealbreaker it once was for the Twins, and Story would give them quality defense with far more offensive output than Simmons. Story seems more likely as a fit here if his market just doesn’t come together as hoped. There are teams who might swoop on a one-year deal in that scenario (e.g. Yankees), but if Story isn’t able to secure a five- or six-year deal and still wants to max out, a Donaldson-esque, four-year offer at least seems feasible. A lot of pieces need to fall into place in this scenario, though.
The Remaining Free Agents
The Simmons deal didn’t work out, but the dismal nature of his 2021 season reduces his 2022 price tag substantially. If the Twins simply want to sign the best glove available and focus on pitching, a cheap Simmons reunion makes sense. There have also been rumors connecting Simmons to the Yankees, who looked into the possibility of acquiring Simmons last summer.
Once upon a time, Jose Iglesias would’ve been viewed in a similar capacity to Simmons. Some may still see him in that light. However, Iglesias’ 2021 season was punctuated by a rather shocking downturn with the glove. Defensive Runs Saved pegged him at a staggering -22, and he posted the first negative Ultimate Zone Rating (-6.1) of his career. Outs Above Average was the most forgiving metric, but even OAA only pegged him as an average defender. Iglesias’ .271/.309/.391 output in 2021 confirmed that his outrageous 2020 season (.373/.400/.556 in 150 plate appearances) was more small-sample fluke than late-blooming breakout. He could be had on an affordable one-year deal himself, but there’s no guarantee the glove bounces back.
Switch-hitting Jonathan Villar remains unsigned, and he’d probably offer the best hope of offensive production from this group. The 32-year-old carries a .259/.327/.408 slash with 58 homers and 104 steals through 497 games over the past four seasons, but Villar isn’t regarded as a strong defender at shortstop. He’s also hit well in two of the past three seasons — 2020’s small sample being the exception — so he could justifiably seek a two-year deal.
There are a handful of other free agents with recent shortstop experience — Josh Harrison, Phil Gosselin, Matt Duffy, old friend Ehire Adrianza — but they profile as bench options (or, perhaps in Harrison’s case, as a starter at second or third base, where the Twins aren’t looking for solutions).
The Trade Market
There are a handful of interesting names to consider if, as seems to be the case with their pitching needs, the Twins deem the trade market a more palatable path to finding a shortstop. The Rangers, for instance, have already inked two of the “big five” shortstops this winter, pushing Isiah Kiner-Falefa to third base — at least until top third base prospect Josh Jung debuts in 2022. Minnesota GM Thad Levine was an assistant GM in Texas when Kiner-Falefa was selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. There’s no urgency for the Rangers to move Kiner-Falefa, who’s controlled through 2023, but it’d probably behoove the Twins to inquire. Kiner-Falefa owns a .273/.316/.361 batting line with elite defensive contributions over the past two seasons.
The Twins are a natural trade partner for the Reds, who’ll have several starting pitchers available. Minnesota could conceivably look to double dip, adding a shortstop as well as a pitcher. In Cincinnati, that could be utilityman-turned-starter Kyle Farmer, who figures to cede playing time to top prospect Jose Barrero before long. Farmer, 31, hit .263/.316/.416 with solid glovework in a career-high 529 plate appearances in 2021. He’s controlled through 2024.
Some might argue there’s a similar approach to be taken with Oakland, as the Twins could offer to take back some of Elvis Andrus’ contract to help grease the wheels on a trade for a starter. However, as I explored back in December, there are plenty of obstacles in a potential Andrus deal (namely a no-trade clause and a problematic vesting option). He also just hasn’t hit since 2017, and his defensive ratings have cratered. It’d be more sensible to just sign Simmons or Iglesias and focus solely on a starting pitcher in trade talks with the A’s.
Over in Arizona, the D-backs have a well-regarded defender in Nick Ahmed, but the 31-year-old limped through a career-worst year at the plate. The glove still plays, and outside of 2021, he’s “only” been a below-average hitter (.248/.307/.421, 89 wRC+ from 2018-20). The Snakes owe Ahmed $17.5MM combined from 2022-23, and they’ll want to open a spot for top prospect Geraldo Perdomo before too long. If you want to consider two-for-one possibilities here, as with the Reds, perhaps the Twins could try to pry Merrill Kelly away. He’ll be a free agent next winter.
If the Twins and Guardians are both comfortable dealing within the division, Cleveland has a bevy of middle infielders while the Twins are deep in outfield options. Both have a deep supply at an area the other is lacking. Amed Rosario is two years from free agency, while Andres Gimenez is more controllable but less proven offensively. Cleveland has so many middle-infield prospects bubbling up toward the Majors behind that pair, that there’s a natural on-paper fit here. (The Guardians are also deeper in starting pitching than the Twins, setting up additional possibilities.) It’s always tougher to envision division rivals dealing with one another, but Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey was hired out of the Cleveland front office back in 2016.
As with any offseason need, there are boundless possibilities to consider even beyond this list. The Twins could try to buy low on KBO star Ha-Seong Kim — a square peg in a round hole with the Padres — or look into defensive standout Kevin Newman over in Pittsburgh (though he was the only shortstop who was less-productive at the plate than Simmons last season). You can mix-and-match the possibilities to your liking — what else is there to do with no end to the lockout in sight? — but it’s likely the Twins’ next starting shortstop hasn’t yet been acquired.