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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: What to make of Twins extensions for Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler

FORT MYERS, Fla. — If Derek Falvey is going to build and then bet on a nucleus to make his career as a baseball executive, he made his first ante at the poker table Thursday.

Two springs after taking over the Twins’ baseball operations department, Falvey and Co. made their first significant bets, when news emerged Thursday that the Twins have agreed to lengthy contract extensions for Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler. There’s been talk of significant plays in free agency in the past, but nothing substantial has materialized; there’ve been trade talks at length, but there, too, nothing consummated. So the salary raises and security given to each of these players can be viewed as the first significant step in the direction of building what Falvey has promised since he took the job: a “sustainable, championship-caliber” organization.

Polanco’s extension is worth $25.75 million over 5 years, plus two options tacked on the end, the club confirmed. Kepler’s deal could be worth $45 million or more over 6 years, if the team picks up the option in the final season of the pact. If both players become the stars that you might hope for if you’re a Twins fan, it’s going to look like a good deal for Minnesota. But then, there’s also the matter of being assured long-term financial security, and there’s risk being assessed on each side of the table.

This column presents 5 thoughts on the contract extensions:

1. Jorge Polanco now has a clear future as a building block for the Twins. 

Will he play shortstop three years from now? Will Royce Lewis factor into the mix? Will Nick Gordon or Wander Javier? These questions don’t seem to matter as much today as they might have two weeks ago. For that matter, we’re talking about a guy who is less than one year removed from getting suspended for steroids after failing a drug test. That long term uncertainty is now cleared up and the questions can be redirected.

How can the Twins get the most out of Polanco? Which position will be best for him and for his future teammates?

If you can get yourself past that suspension, it’s not hard to envision this becoming a nice deal for the club. Two years ago the Indians signed Jose Ramirez to a similar contract (5 years, $26 million plus an option year), only to watch him blossom into an MVP candidate. That’s not to suggest that Polanco keeps that impressive company. But there’s a lot to like offensively.

If you look back at his 2017 season, Polanco was one of the unsung heroes of a postseason Twins team. He was a big reason the Twins surged and captured the final Wild Card spot in the American League, when he hit .316/.377/.553 after Aug. 1. Then spring training 2018 rolled around and he was forced to sit out the first 80 games of the season when he tested positive for Stanozolol, a steroid. He returned and hit well, even though the power numbers weren’t quite the same as that final blistering 2-month stretch in ’17. The 25-year-old hit .288/.345/.427 in his most recent half-season, and that was enough for the Twins to see a long-term building block.

Report: Twins close to contract extension for Jorge Polanco

2. Max Kepler hasn’t had that “breakout” season yet, but clearly the Twins believe in him.

It looks to me like the Twins believe that Max Kepler will be better in the future than he’s been in the past. In 2018, Kepler hit .224/.319/.408. In his career the totals are .233/.313/.417. Not exactly a breakout star, but also not terrible when you pair it with what I consider good fielding in right field, the ability to play center, and quality base running. Oh, and don’t forget the distinct possibility that there’s more to come from Kepler.

Both Polanco (Dominican Republic) and Kepler (Germany) have been in the Twins organization for nearly 10 years after signing in the July (2009) signing period for international free agents. In each of the past two seasons, we’ve been waiting for Kepler to put it all together at the plate and become that above-average regular — or even star player — that the Twins probably think that he can become.

He sure doesn’t have to be a star for $7 million per year to look like a deal, but if he becomes that guy, a perennial all-star or at least candidate, then all the better for his employer.

Last season Kepler improved a weakness, his ability to hit lefties. He also drew more walks and struck out less often. But his overall offensive numbers didn’t take that jump forward that you’d expect, and as a result, some fans are disappointed by the 26-year-old’s lack of progress year over year.

That’s the pessimistic view. The optimistic view asks us to look for the positives. He’s athletic; he has a good-looking swing, however unquantifiable; he struck out less and walked more often in 2018; he’s got a fairly strong and accurate throwing arm; he runs fast; and year over year the under-the-hood metrics like what he’s trying to do, as he’s catches more pitches on the sweet spot, hitting them harder on average, and trading his ground balls for more line drives and fly balls; and the website Baseball Savant, which uses Statcast data from MLB games, says he should have posted better offensive numbers than he did, based on how well he hits the ball.

All of that might help to explain why the Twins gave him a bigger contract than the Braves gave Ender Inciarte (5 years, $30.525 million) two offseasons ago, or the Phillies signed with Odubel Herrera (5 years, $30.5 million) that same winter. The salary could soon look like a long-term bargain for Minnesota. The point is that they wouldn’t shop for that bargain here if they didn’t believe in Max Kepler.

Reports: Max Kepler and the Twins agree to a contract extension

3. Are there other contracts on the horizon for the Twins?

Sources familiar with the team’s winter indicated that talks will continue with other players. It might not happen tomorrow, but it wouldn’t register as a shock if there’s another contract extension before the season begins.

Who would make sense? Well, for starters, you might look to J.O. Berrios, who just completed his best season to date as the team’s young ace. He’s not even eligible for arbitration until next winter, meaning the earliest that he could become a free agent is the 2023 season. The Phillies’ ace Aaron Nola, who has an additional year of service and has shown to be a better pitcher than Berrios, just signed for 4 years and $45 million with Philadelphia.

Then there’s Taylor Rogers, who added a slider mid-year last season and became untouchable. He might be a closer candidate heading into 2019 for the Twins, although manager Rocco Baldelli wants to keep that zipped up inside the vest. Not many relievers get a big-money deal before hitting free agency, but it’s worth watching whether the Twins would be willing to bet on Rogers’ breakout as the real deal.

Eddie Rosario was an all-star candidate last year and got hurt and had an underwhelming run to the season’s finish line. His disappearing act was more surprising than his burst onto the scene, at least for Twins followers who’ve seen him progress through the years. Rosario is in that mold of Polanco and Kepler, where you’d say that he’s good now and could get better still, so if the Twins are looking for that type of player to extend, the left fielder might make a natural candidate. On the other hand, he’s a year closer to free agency than his already-extended peers, so maybe his agent is looking at the more lucrative deals that have been signed by star players in the past, before the freeze hit the free agent market.

This season for Kyle Gibson is scheduled to be a walk year. Indications are that the team is pleased with the turnaround he made in the past year-and-a-half, and that Gibson would like to remain in a Twins uniform. Unlike the other players, who might come at a relative discount to their open-market peers because of the arbitration system in baseball, Gibson is so close to free agency that it could prove to be more expensive. He’s a starter who will be 31 and has a track record for the past season-plus as a solid mid-rotation arm that’s dependable, both on the mound and well beyond.  You can find some big contract extensions given for those services (like the 5 years and $65 million that the White Sox gave John Danks or the Royals gave Danny Duffy), or you could find a different kind of pitcher and ask about the 3 years and $30.5 million the Reds committed to their trade acquisition Sonny Gray.

The two elephants in the room are Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. If either party wants to take that Jose Ramirez contract, similar to what Jorge Polanco just signed, then I’d be interested in a heartbeat. One question: Would the Twins? Worth noting, I don’t think it’d be a good deal for either one of those players to take, assuming that they still have star aspirations. Don’t sell your future performance when your perceived value has never been lower.

4. Is this the new Moneyball?

Twins CBO Derek Falvey has said on multiple occasions this winter that he believes the path to a sustained winning organization is through development of young players. Free agency, to paraphrase, is supplementary.

The book that Michael Lewis wrote about Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, Moneyball, often gets mistaken as a book about on-base percentage. That was part of it, but the real point was about market inefficiencies. For teams that need to operate on a budget (or needed to), the objective was to try to discover and buy things that were undervalued by competitors. For a while it was on-base percentage, then maybe it was defense, and perhaps bullpen organization.

These days teams have a lot of the same information, they all seem to understand that communication is vital, and with maybe a few exceptions, even the late adopters are working to grow and find the next competitive advantage, the next Moneyball.

I personally think that might come from health and fitness, but these contracts are an example of a trick teams are trying. If you can get Jose Ramirez signed to a 5-year, affordable contract, and then he becomes an MVP candidate, you’re in great shape with the rest of your roster. The problem is that you can’t be wrong too often, and, oh yeah, you still have to find your Ramirez in the first place. MVPs don’t grow on trees.

5. So now should the Twins shift their plans and commit to the free-agent market?

The Twins didn’t appear all too interested in buying free agents this winter. They signed, Nelson Cruz, Blake Parker and the non-tendered Jonathan Schoop. But now that they’ve made this financial commitment to the present and future of the franchise, should we expect that their next move is to see what Manny Machado is up to these days?

Right or wrong, that’s not an expectation that I hold at this point. The Twins knew that these extensions were going to be in their future. They tried to get a few of them done last year if the price was right, and nothing came to fruition. They’ve been thinking about them all winter.

It’s not as if Thad Levine woke up Thursday with an idea in his mind and by noon an agreement was struck. So if they were thinking about these last month, when Levine told a crowd of fans at TwinsFest that the time to shoot for the superstar acquisition is when you’re ready to “step on the throat” of a division foe, the timing of these contract extensions wouldn’t seem to change that philosophy. I think that the Twins will try to position themselves to buy a superstar in the future. I just don’t think that future is this weekend.

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