Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Can Polanco Hit His Way Out?

The Minnesota Twins are nearly certain they'll start Jorge Polanco at shortstop to open the 2017 season. He played over 400 innings there in 2016, and with Brian Dozier remaining within the organization, there isn't realistic room to shift Polanco to the other side of second base. The question is, can his bat elevate him high enough to overcome his defensive inefficiency?

Under Paul Molitor last season, Polanco started 45 games at shortstop. Prior to that, the last time he played shortstop was for a 19 game stint at Triple-A Rochester in 2015. Recently, Molitor was asked why a guy they relied upon so heavily, wasn't given a better opportunity to succeed. On Polanco not playing shortstop in the minors last season, the Twins skipper told Phil Miller of the Star Tribune, "I wish I had a better explanation, we didn't handle it the right way."

That's an answer that could be used all too often for some of Molitor's roster and lineup decisions a season ago, but it's one that needs to be phased out in the coming season. For a Twins club that should be looking at defense as the linchpin to growth, making sure guys are well positioned and prepared is a must. For Polanco though, it's worth wondering just how much can be done.

Prior to the 2016 season, Polanco showed up on both Baseball American and MLB.com's Top 100 prospect lists. He was primarily a second basemen, and has been widely regarded as a bat first guy. Across seven minor league seasons, the young Dominican owns a .757 OPS backed by a strong .286 average and .346 OBP. He's never going to hit for much power, but as a gap guy with speed, he'll stretch extra bases plenty. It's always seemed that second would be his home however, and that coexisting with Brian Dozier was unlikely.

A year ago, Polanco turned in 406 innings at short. He racked up a -8 DRS and committed 11 errors. It wasn't quite a Danny Santana level of futility (-15 DRS 16 E in 578.1 innings during 2015), but it was well down that path. Polanco's range was a serious detriment for the Twins (-10.9 UZR) as well, and it's probably fair to wonder if taking poor routes to compensate for a noted lack of arm strength wasn't part of the issue.

All things considered, expecting Polanco to win a Gold Glove playing shortstop is not a likely proposition. For Minnesota though, that really shouldn't be the goal. What they need to see happen is Polanco land somewhere in the average territory, and we can find a relative group of what that may look like.

In 2016, only five players (with 400+ innings) had worse DRS numbers at short than Polanco. Alexei Ramirez (-20), Brad Miller (-14), and Jordy Mercer (-9) all played for losing clubs. Both Xander Bogaerts (-10) and Didi Gregorious (-9) played on teams with winning records, and their bats spoke loudly for them. At the top of the shortstop DRS list resides the likes of Addison Russell (19) and Brandon Crawford (19). The middle ground is something in the -3 to 0 range.

Seven shortstops fall within -3 to 0 DRS having played over 400 innings. They include Carlos Correa, Chris Owings, Aledmys Diaz, Elvis Andrus, Ketel Marte, Orlando Arcia, and Corey Seager. Of that group, only Owings' Diamondbacks and Arcia's Brewers had losing seasons. There's also a decent contingent of solid hitters in that bunch, allowing them to contribute to their club's offensive production as well.

For Jorge Polanco, finding a way to get to the middle ground is a must. He can't continue to post the 6th worst DRS numbers in the big leagues, and he has to put up a better UZR than the 5th worst mark in baseball. By now we know that the position puts a strain on him with a lack of arm strength, and honestly, being miscast as a fit. Although he's not going to hit like Bogaerts, a Gregorious-esque (.276/.304/.447) slash line seems more than doable. With a few minor tweaks, rounding himself into a more complete player would help the Twins out substantially.

In 2017, the Twins are going to win more games simply because of minor tweaks. Jason Castro elevates the pitching staff, and a consistent outfield of Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler provide a massive defensive boost. Polanco needs to raise the water mark by elevating his play just a little, even if he's still somewhat of a liability. The bat has never been the concern, and it's time to make the glove less of one.

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