Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Solidifying The Twins Up The Middle

Over the past month, two Minnesota Twins hitters have been absolutely unconscious in relation to their teammates. Both Kurt Suzuki and Brian Dozier have been so red hot at the plate, they've completely turned around the storylines of their early seasons. While Suzuki is in the last year of his deal with Minnesota, and is likely on his way out, Dozier is not and finds himself in a different situation.

Coming into the season, there was some significant worry about what Brian Dozier's career may turn into. Fangraphs questioned whether his pull happy tendencies would have him looking like Dan Uggla sooner rather than later. Using that as a baseline, I too was worried that we may have seen the best of what Dozier has to offer.

Then there was the early season swoon for the Twins second basemen. He was determined to pull the ball regardless of what that meant for the team. His approach had become one of a sellout for power, and in turn, allowed him to maximize his career potential. The piece that became maybe hardest to be patient with was that there were numbers that suggested Dozier would turn things around, despite what we were watching was telling us. Now through the month of June, we have seen a guy that looks every bit the part of his 2015 All Star self come full circle.

Back in May, the numbers I noted included a 7.5% HR/FB ratio, a 17.2 K%, and an 81.2% contact rate. While Dozier was putting up better peripheral numbers than at most points in his career, the results simply weren't following suit for him. Fast forward to where we are now, and things have normalized significant. He's still making great contact, in fact he's bumped the number to an even 82%. His strikeout rate has continued to drop, and Dozier is heading back to the bench just 16% of the time (a very nice adjustment from his Twins record setting strikeout total a year ago). The biggest difference though comes by way of the longball.

I wrote that piece talking about numbers suggesting not to panic on Dozier on May 3. To that point, the second basemen had just three homers for the Twins. His 7.5% HR/FB ratio was nearly half of what it was a season ago. Now, Dozier has boosted his his HR/FB ratio to a whopping 12%. It's equated to nine more home runs for the 2015 All Star, and his game looks to be back in line with what we have come to expect from him.

Just over a year ago, Brian Dozier was climbing into elite territory among second basemen. From a position that doesn't boast an incredible amount of offensive stalwarts, he was right there behind the Jose Altuve's of the big leagues. With his resurgence and normalization, he's made good once again on his contract, and has the Twins having to wonder what to do with the middle of their infield.

Enter Jorge Polanco.

A top Twins prospect and just 22 years old, Polanco is going to force the Twins to make a decision on him sooner rather than later as he'll be out of options a season from now. Through 48 games at Triple-A Rochester this season, he's slashing .289/.344/.492 with 22 extra base hits. He's played nearly exclusively at second base (41 games with one at third base), and hasn't played considerable time at shortstop since 2015 at Double-A Chattanooga.

For Polanco, the thought was that he'd never be able to stick at short in the big leagues. With 339 games under his belt in the minors at short, he's made 99 errors in just shy of 3,000 innings. His .932 fielding percentage leaves plenty to be desired, and would likely be an area of concern at the highest level. What the Twins haven't done however is find out.

When Eduardo Escobar hit the disabled list early in 2016, I argued that Paul Molitor should have deployed Polanco at short on a nearly every day basis. Eduardo Nunez is a fun story, but not an every day player, and he's started to show that. Molitor failed to employ the idea however, and aPolanco was given little opportunity to provide and level of clarity for the Twins.

Now having returned and surged since being injured, Escobar once again looks like the Twins best option at short. What's worth exploring though is whether or not an ideal situation involves both Polanco and Escobar garnering starts at short for Minnesota. In this scenario, Minnesota would likely (and should) need to move Eduardo Nunez. It's a proposition I have been making for weeks, and while he likely isn't going to have a ton of trade value regardless of his out-of-nowhere 2016, shipping Nunez elsewhere opens a necessary roster spot for the Twins.

At this point, Minnesota appears committed to the idea that Nunez is an All Star. For marketing purposes, it makes sense as to why they'd want to hold onto him until after the mid-summer classic in San Diego. Shortly thereafter though, Terry Ryan needs to cut ties and turn shortstop over into a rotational situation between Escobar and Polanco.

Going forward, the Twins absolutely have to make a decision on who stays and who goes between Dozier and Polanco. If Jorge can't hack it at short and his lone position is second base, I'd look to send him packing. He's not going to bring the return that Dozier presumably would, but he also would have some serious production shoes to fill if Minnesota did move on from Dozier.

In an ideal situation the Twins enter 2017 with Eduardo Escobar and Jorge Polanco splitting time at shortstop with Brian Dozier holding down second base. If the return for Polanco can help you elsewhere, he's the piece I'm willing to move. Barring a club giving up a handful of prospects for an All Star caliber player in Dozier, I want to hold onto one of the most productive players on the Twins roster.

Going forward, third base is Miguel Sano's while first base is Joe Mauer's. What happens up the middle is up in the air for the time being, but the Twins could provide themselves more clarity over the next couple of months.

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