In the first major, albeit wholly expected, domino to fall in an intriguing offseason for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the team reportedly picked up options on both Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco earlier this week.
Now that we know both long-time Twins are under contract, how does the front office see the second and third base positions shaking out over the next few years? Also, how do they feel they can best maximize assets while shuffling the roster?
Let’s start by setting the roster stage.
The Twins have six pending free agents who were either on the 2023 Opening Day roster or finished the year in prominent roles for the Twins: starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, and Kenta Maeda, bullpen arm Emilio Pagan, starting center fielder Michael A. Taylor, and platoon options/part-time starters Joey Gallo and Donovan Solano.
The big picture is important to understand because the Twins need to consider the cost of replacing all of the above talent, undoubtedly by mixing and matching returning players with new additions.
It’s also important to note that the raises received by Kepler and Polanco aren’t necessarily peanuts. Kepler will go from $8.5 million to $10 million and Polanco will see an increase from $7.5 million to $10.5 million. In a vacuum, both values are solid. But the Twins must weigh the expected production from their in-house veterans with the built-in raises against what they believe they can recoup in a trade and the expected production of potential replacements.
Let’s take a look at each player individually, along with potential in-house replacements if a trade takes place. I’m not going to break down third base, because the assumption here is that it’s Royce Lewis’ job. Jose Miranda is still an option there, but it seems more likely that he could end up forming a first-base platoon with Alex Kirilloff.
Max Kepler (& Other Right Field Options)
Last offseason, it was almost seen as a foregone conclusion that the Minnesota Twins would pull the trigger on a Max Kepler trade.
Coming off of a third consecutive disappointing offensive season in 2022, the Twins were about to see Kepler’s contract jump to $8.5 million in 2023. With a team option ahead in 2024 and plenty of left-handed corner outfield options waiting in the wings, a Kepler trade seemed inevitable.
Instead, the Twins hung onto Kepler, and the 30-year-old rewarded them with his best offensive season since 2019 while turning in another strong defensive performance.
The current right field depth chart looks something like this:
- Max Kepler
- Matt Wallner
- Trevor Larnach
- Alex Kirilloff
That’s ... kind of it. From what was previously a glut of (mostly lefthanded) corner outfielders, the Twins are down to this list of four. (See you later, Joey Gallo. LaMonte Wade and Brent Rooker, we miss you both.)
That leaves three. Wallner doesn’t have the range of Kepler but is a passable defender because of his rocket-like arm. Larnach is an average-at-best fielder who continues to look like more of a “4-A” bat than a true big-leaguer. His production with the Twins was below average but his Triple-A line was again strong; Larnach has hit .252/.366/.456 in 426 Triple-A plate appearances across the last three seasons.
There’s no question that the 2023 version of Max Kepler is the best all-around player of the bunch as we turn the calendar to 2024. The question, rather, is if that production is worth the $10 million that it will cost and if the Twins value Kepler’s presence at that cost over whatever they believe they can get for him on the trade market this offseason.
Remember, the above list is, more or less, the Twins’ options in left field, too. Kirilloff is an option, especially if the Twins slide Miranda to first base and keep Lewis at third for the time being, but a first-base platoon seems more sustainable. In general, the corner outfield options suddenly feel a lot less crowded than they did at this time over the past few years.
Jorge Polanco (& Other Second Base Options)
Before the 2023 season, it seemed as though the Twins would plan ahead to move on from Polanco this coming winter, even after the Luis Arraez trade. With Miranda the apparent answer at third base and the re-signing of Carlos Correa potentially moving Royce Lewis to second base or, eventually, center field, shelling out the $10.5 million that Polanco is scheduled to make in 2024 seemed unappetizing.
It’s less obvious now, in the wake of Miranda’s ineffective and, eventually, injury-shortened 2023 campaign. But Edouard Julien turned in a fantastic offensive campaign and showed real growth in the field. While Polanco was far from comfortable in on-the-job training at third base, he held his own and would likely be serviceable there if given the opportunity to truly learn the craft. But again, Lewis.
Here’s a list of second base options, in order of what I’d imagine the Twins’ projected comfort level would be for each player to be a regular starter at second base next season.
- Jorge Polanco
- Eddie Julien
- Nick Gordon
- Brooks Lee
- Austin Martin
- Anthony Prato
Behind Polanco, Julien is the only true option to be the Opening Day second baseman for a team that will have aspirations of another division title and a deep postseason run. His .263/.381/.459 slash with an OPS+ of 130 and a league-best chase rate are fantastic. The defense still needs work, but whomever the top utility option is can be a late-inning replacement and Rocco Baldelli can give Julien the occasional start at designated hitter as well.
The future could still be 2023 No. 8-overall draft selection Brooks Lee, who cruised through the first half of the season at Double-A Wichita before being challenged at Triple-A St. Paul. Had Lee dominated there as well, there may have been an opportunity for him to push for the Opening Day second base role. Instead, he turned in a pedestrian line of .237/.304/.428, albeit in only 168 plate appearances at the highest rung of the minors. He’s mostly playing shortstop and many think his future is at third base, but unless the Twins decide to move Lewis to the outfield, second base seems to be the path of least resistance if the Twins want to get Lee’s bat the majors.
Martin, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 draft by Toronto, wallowed through an unimpressive crack at Double-A last season before being shut down with a UCL injury. When he returned midway through this season, the Twins parked him at Triple-A, undoubtedly to push the 24-year-old and see if he had a legitimate future as a big-leaguer. Martin rose to the challenge, slashing .263/.387/.405 in 252 plate appearances over 59 games at St. Paul, mostly at second base.
As good as Martin’s partial season was in Triple-A, it’s hard to imagine the Twins planning to plug him in as an everyday contributor. Given his pedigree as a potent college hitter and top draft pick, the most likely path for Martin to make the major league club is as a super-utility player. In fact, think a righthanded-hitting Nick Gordon.
Just last offseason, I laid out the case for trading Kepler but at the same time was wary of the Twins selling low, given his three-year skid at the plate.
Sure enough, sitting here right now, Kepler surely has far more trade value than he did just nine months ago.
But at the same time, the corner outfield cupboards are not as stocked as Twins fans are used to seeing, at least in the short term. Possible starting-caliber outfielder Kala’i Rosario and top-three prospect Emmanuel Rodriguez are both likely at least two years away, and there isn’t a whole lot in the minors between them and the Wallner/Larnach/(Kirilloff) trio, although DaShawn Keirsey (late-blooming prospect who is probably a fourth outfielder) and Alerick Soularie (2020 second-round pick with upside who has yet to truly break out) may push for a big-league spot in the interim.
The issue with trading Polanco isn’t necessarily finding a second base replacement, it’s filling his spot in the lineup. Julien would be the only option remotely close to replicating Polanco’s performance at the plate, and after that, it’s a fairly significant drop-off.
I actually wouldn’t be shocked if the Twins held onto both players, but if one is traded, I’m betting on Polanco. The depth and upside of Julien/Lewis/Lee at both the keystone and the hot corner, combined with the fill-in ability of the likes of Gordon, Willi Castro, and Kyle Farmer at each of those spots makes it easier to back-fill if Polanco is moved. Yes, replacing his bat is easier said than done, but Julien certainly made a strong case that he will be more than capable.
The Twins no longer have clear, MLB-ready talent in the corner spots in the outfield and would be better served to pick and choose between Wallner, Kirilloff, and Larnach (plus Castro and Gordon) as left-field options with Kepler holding down the everyday spot in right field for at least one more season.