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5 Thoughts: What's the plan at shortstop for the Twins?
Good day, readers. I want to write a bit today about some of the most pressing questions we’re thinking about these days, as we enjoy one more warm day before the Fall chill sticks for good. The first, on the mound, we’ve addressed as squarely as we can by writing the Top-25 Starting Pitchers That Are Free Agents. The Twins are free to choose which of their own pitchers they’d like to count on, and then refer to our list as a shopping list, if they like. We’re generous around here! They can also make trades, but the point is that we all agree that it needs to be addressed.
The second, the question of Byron Buxton’s future, that’s a bit of an elephant in the room. Let’s call it out, and save it for another day. Looking at my October publishing calendar, I have two columns centered entirely on the centerfielder, and the headline of a third that I think very well could drift into only talking about Buxton.
Right. So, the third, let’s get into that today. What will the Twins do at shortstop in 2022? Let’s first buzz around the league and make a few observations. This column presents 5 Thoughts on this moment in time of the Twins and Major League Baseball.
This column is made possible by Subscribing Members. Thank you to new members who signed up this week, including M.W. and H.A.F. Thanks also to Kerry, for the interaction and the gifted membership. Welcome to the club.
1) Manager movement around MLB
Aaron Boone and the Yankees agreed to a contract extension to keep the manager in the dugout for at least three more seasons.
I had briefly written about Boone in my last newsletter, so it seemed fair to present the up-to-the-minute update for the sake of completeness. To be clear, I noted the Twins’ previous interest in Boone before he took the Yankees job, and wrote last week that the indications were that Boone would be sticking around in New York.
Two managers already had been shown the door when I wrote that column, Luis Rojas (Mets) and Jayce Tingler (Padres). Now we can also add Cardinals’ skipper Mike Shildt to the list. This registers for me as a surprise firing.
The Cardinals were great down the stretch and made the postseason. Yet, Shildt was fired by president of baseball ops, John Mozeliak, over “philosophical differences.” I don’t know exactly what that means and as of yet the Cardinals have not made it any clearer. I am interested to see if he lands somewhere, though. And regardless, one thing that should be remembered about his tenure in St. Louis is that he helped to blow the lid off the “Sticky Stuff” conversations with his midseason rant.
2) Did you see that Classic Eddie Rosario performance?
Filling in for Jorge Soler and leading off for the Braves after doing so just once in the regular seasons, the guy we knew as a Bright-Lights player in Minnesota appeared at a great time for Atlanta.
In the 3rd inning of Game 2, Eddie Rosario raced to his left to catch a line drive hit by Trea Turner, which Dodgers fans would have expected to go for a triple. That kept Corey Seager at first base, preserved what was then a 2-0 deficit for Atlanta, and allowed Ian Anderson to work his way out of the inning without giving up a run. Will Smith did single after that Rosario catch, so at a minimum we’ll say he saved one run with his glove, but you might credit him with two.
In the home half of that inning, he beat out a 2-out infield single to give Freddie Freeman a chance with a runner on base. The former MVP struck out.
In the 5th inning, he nabbed a line drive from the bat of Gavin Lux with two Dodgers teammates on base, ending the threat and the half inning.
In the bottom of that inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts went to the mound to get Max Scherzer, rather than let him face the Braves’ leadoff man Rosario a third time -- a sentence that surely would have confused us at this time last year. Anyhow, Rosario singled on a 1-2 pitch from reliever Alex Vesia, before Freeman and then Ozzie Albies struck out to end the inning.
Rosario singled to lead off the 8th inning with Atlanta trailing 4-2. Rosario then made a confusing decision and tagged up — successfully — from first base on Freeman’s fly out to left field. “Rosie” would later score in the inning the home team would tie it up, setting the stage for his heroics in the 9th.
Midway through the 9th inning, former Twins fireballer Brusdar Graterol was pulled so that Kenley Jansen could face Rosario with two outs and a runner on second base. Rosario must have liked the first pitch he saw, because he lined it back up the middle, past Jansen and off Seager’s glove into the outfield. That sent Dansby Swanson home with the winning run and the Atlanta crowd into a frenzy. The Underdogs took Game 2 at home with a come-from-behind, walk-off effort in the Eddie Rosario Game.
3) 0-2 damage
I came across this tweet while I was mindlessly scrolling twitter, which I have to say is one of my very worst habits.
Don’t ask me why my brain works the way it does, but I immediately began wondering about a way to tie it to the Twins. I thought it was a little too easy to just say that three of those guys made my Top-25 Free Agent Starting Pitchers Wish List (Kevin Gausman, Rich Hill and Robbie Ray). So instead I went exploring for the opposite side of the ledger.
One thing that stood out to me anecdotally this year was that the Twins lost a certain number of games from winnable positions. More directly, they lost their fair share of plate appearances from winnable positions. So I looked for the leaderboard for home run rate from an 0-2 count.
Sorting using a minimum of 50 such counts, three Twins pitchers made that ‘leaderboard.’
Matt Shoemaker, 3rd (2.4 homers per 9 innings)
Griffin Jax, 5th (2.3 HR/9)
J.A. Happ*, 9th (1.9 HR/9)
*Happ’s stats include his time with the Cardinals, in which his home run rate was more than cut in half in those situations.
Let’s quickly point out that some of this can be attributed to stats quirks. But certainly not all of it. With two of those three pitchers already gone from the organization, the hope would be that the Twins internalized the lessons learned from a bad pitching season, and can do much better with the 2022 staff.
4) Is the 2022 shortstop already in the organization?
If the reports are accurate, the Twins were seriously interested in Marcus Semien last winter as a shortstop alternative to Jorge Polanco, facilitating the latter’s move to second base. We know the second part of that turned out to be well-conceived. Polanco has long been stretched as an everyday shortstop, and a move to second minimized some of his shortcomings and, coincidentally or not, paved the path for a healthier season and a team MVP campaign with the bat.
However, Semien also switched sides of second base, signing in Toronto and ceding shortstop duties to Bo Bichette. Semien, who is again a free agent this winter, ignited in Toronto. He led the Majors in plate appearances and hit .265/.334/.538 with 45 home runs, scored 115 runs and drove in 102 more for a Blue Jays team that just barely missed the playoffs. He also stole 15 bags and reportedly played a good second base, to boot.
You can’t help but to wonder how the year might have played out differently if the Twins had been successful in their pursuit of Semien. The “What If” game would make great fodder for a future series of columns, if anyone’s interested. Instead, they signed Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive shortstop of his generation, and with two fairly recent seasons in which good health also permitted him to show slightly above average contributions at the plate.
Simmons was once again one of the better shortstops with a glove this year. According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he rated as the fourth-best infield captain defensively and the second best in the American League behind Kansas City’s Nicky Lopez.
2021 MLB leaders among Shortstops:
Nicky Lopez, KCR, 24 OAA (Outs Above Average)
Fransisco Lindor, NYM, 20 OAA
Nick Ahmed, ARI, 19 OAA
SIMMONS, MIN, 16 OAA
Brandon Crawford, SFG, 15 OAA
To the eye, he seemed at times like he’d decline a bit during the season, although I still can remember plenty of times I said to myself, ‘Not sure there are other shortstops who would make the play that Simmons just made.’
However, his one-year deal still will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Twins fans. From that perspective, he picked a bad time to have the worst offensive season of his career. Simmons hit .223/.283/.274, which, by two measures that I like to use to evaluate offensive performance, was the second-worst offensive season for a regular lineup fixture in all of baseball. His .252 Weighted On-Base Average was better than Kevin Newman in Pittsburgh and no one else. Weighted Runs Created-Plus is scaled to make 100 exactly average, and everything above or below that line represents a percentage better or worse than the average hitter. So a 110 wRC+ meant you were 10% better than league-average as a hitter. Again, Simmons’ 56 wRC+ is better than Newman, and that’s it. An optimist would point out that it means his fielding was so notable and the Twins wanted his glove to protect their young pitchers so badly that he started basically all year despite an offensive profile that 56% as good as the average hitter.
Anyway, that’s a long paragraph to say that signing Simmons may have been a good backup plan that really didn’t work out. And we’ll just breeze past the part where he posted about his opposition to getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and later contracted the virus and missed time, although that’s a footnote.
So who is the next shortstop of the Twins?
Simmons? He certainly would be less expensive this time around…
Polanco? I personally wouldn’t tempt losing the gains that the Twins got in the health and production departments, but I’ll concede it might be the path of least resistance if they can’t spend big at multiple positions this winter. (On the other hand, would any Twins player have more trade value than Polanco does at this point?)
Nick Gordon? He had a good showing this year as a part-time player, and particularly impressed me with his attitude, smarts, and willingness to play out of position in the outfield on a team that so badly needed arms and bodies to cover some grass. He looked at the beginning of the year like a player who might lose his 40-man spot. Instead, he may have played his way into the team’s plans. Although, as usual with these situations, I’ll say: ‘We’ll see.’ I like Gordon as much as the next guy, and I think objectively at this point you’d have to say that his bat looks more like a backup/utility type player than an everyday shortstop on a team that plans to contend.
Austin Martin? Acquired in the José Berríos with the Blue Jays, Martin hit the ground running in his first partial season in the Twins organization. In 37 games with Double-A Wichita, he hit .254/.399/.381, continuing to show his elite skill of getting on base as a first-year pro, while also working with the Twins to perhaps add some more power to his game. Impressive debut season, and aggressive promotion certainly would be intriguing. He split time between shortstop and centerfield with the Blue Jays, and later the Wind Surge. From what I’ve heard I currently expect him to profile more as an outfielder as he reaches the big leagues.
Royce Lewis? You’d love to see it, as a Twins fan. But ACL surgery wiped out his whole 2021 season, and he just began to get back on the field, returning for some at-bats during Instructional League down in Fort Myers, Florida, where he spent the year rehabbing his knee. Derek Falvey said at the time of the surgery that the Twins would continue to bet on Lewis. I just wouldn’t bet on him getting the bulk of Major League innings at shortstop in 2022.
Last note here, have you seen this free agent class of shortstops? In addition to Semien and Simmons, there’s Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Javier Báez. Maybe Chris Taylor? Or someone like José Iglesias if you opt for glove over bat. That class is worth some attention, to say the least.
But that could be greatly impacted by … Thought #5.
My plan is to write twice a week this offseason. Members get every post, and I’ll be sure to send some free ones like this to the whole group as well. There’s approximately one metric ton riding on this offseason for the Twins. Don’t miss an article, subscribe today.
5) What will happen with the CBA?
Professionally, I’m wondering when things will shake out, and if any games will need to be missed as the two sides work toward an agreement. But personally, I’m really curious to see if any big rule changes will emerge from this round of negotiations -- not just contract stuff and splitting up the “pie,” as it were.
I asked Twins President Dave St. Peter in the final weekend of the regular season to share his view of the negotiations. He suggested that the media coverage of the CBA discussion as a whole has been more negative than warranted and said that “frankly, there’s a lot more common ground than probably people believe.”
I don’t write a lot about the topic for this column, though I’m exceedingly interested in MLB as a business. I just haven’t felt that my ruminations are that helpful or productive over simply relaying the facts as they’re presented by people closer to the discussion than me. With that in mind, here are a few more thoughts to share with you from my chat with St. Peter:
*Rob Manfred has a reputation of being a dealmaker.
*Though they’ve been largely quiet this summer publicly, “all the key topics have been discussed” during the year.
*Those “key topics” include but are not limited to: The money; expanded postseason; MLB’s evolution as a sport, which itself contains a lot of topics for another day.
*Lastly: “I’m not suggesting that there won’t be some rough waters ahead. But I am optimistic that a solution will be had,” St. Peter said, “and that we’ll be able to play a full 162 games in 2022.”
So, that’s the good news to end on today. What other topics would you like to see me cover in the weeks and months ahead?