Why the Twins traded Jorge Polanco, who they got in return and what comes next

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Asked last week about the Minnesota Twins’ lack of offseason activity, manager Rocco Baldelli said he “would bet on” a significant move taking place before the end of spring training.

Baldelli won that bet Monday night, with plenty of time to spare, as the Twins traded their longest-tenured player, Jorge Polanco, to the Seattle Mariners for a four-player package consisting of minor leaguers Gabriel Gonzalez and Darren Bowen and major leaguers Justin Topa and Anthony DeSclafani.

Trade speculation has swirled around Polanco all offseason, so the move hardly comes as a surprise, but his departure ends an excellent Twins career that began in 2009. Polanco signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in the same international prospect class as Miguel Sanó and Max Kepler, and only 10 hitters ever played more games (832) with a higher OPS+ (111) in a Twins uniform.

Polanco would be my choice for the most underrated player of the Target Field era. He was an All-Star shortstop in 2019 and performed at an All-Star level in 2021 after shifting to second base, being named the Twins’ team MVP. Overall, he was an above-average hitter in six of his eight years as a regular, with an OPS at least 15 percent better than league average in four of the last five seasons.

That’s hugely valuable production from a switch-hitting middle infielder with good speed. And while Polanco’s defense was stretched at shortstop and closer to good than great at second base, his willingness to change positions, wherever and whenever it helped the Twins, added to his all-around value and made him a clubhouse favorite. Polanco should be in the team Hall of Fame someday.

However, the reality is that the 30-year-old’s time in Minnesota was coming to an end soon, one way or another. Polanco has dealt with numerous leg injuries, playing just 184 of a possible 324 games the past two years. This season’s $10.5 million salary and his $12 million team option for 2025 are each reasonable, but the Twins have a logjam of young, MLB-ready infielders waiting in the wings.

“We think we have a really deep infield group,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said, pointing first to Carlos Correa and Royce Lewis providing stability on the left side. “When we looked at our infield to start the offseason, it’s probably why a lot of questions came up on Polo. All were fair. There are a lot of bodies, a lot of guys.”

Edouard Julien can step in as the primary second baseman right now, perhaps in a platoon with Kyle Farmer like the Twins used when Polanco was sidelined last year. By midseason, No. 2 prospect Brooks Lee and No. 6 prospect Austin Martin should be call-up options. None of them are guaranteed to be as good as Polanco was at his best, but neither is Polanco at this stage of his career.

This is a prime example of the Twins trading from an area of strength, and it’s also an example of cashing in a veteran player whose value could be much lower at midseason or next offseason given Polanco’s age and injury history. In doing so, the Twins get a quality haul from the Mariners that blends short-term value and long-term upside in a way that’s rare for a trade between contending teams.

“It doesn’t always come together like this,” Falvey said. “But ultimately it came together in a way that allowed us to address the present and the future.”

Gonzalez is a consensus top-100 prospect who would likely slot in at No. 5 on my Twins top prospects list published three weeks ago. Signed out of Venezuela for $1.3 million as a 17-year-old in 2021, he’s a burly corner outfielder and free-swinging right-handed slugger who hit .298/.361/.476 with 18 homers in 116 games across two Single-A levels last season, all before turning 20.

Gonzalez is something of a boom-or-bust prospect, with believers who think he can be a middle-of-the-lineup force and skeptics who worry a lack of discipline at the plate may be a red flag. On its own, getting a top-100 prospect for a good but oft-injured 30-year-old under two seasons of team control at sizable but fair salaries wouldn’t look out of place as a 1-for-1 swap, but the Twins got more.

“(Gonzalez) is a critical piece,” Falvey said. “This is a guy our scouts really like. And our player personnel group got a chance to look at the video and assess the swing and think about what he can do. He’s a really good young player. We are really excited about getting him into the system.”

Bowen is the closest thing this trade has to a toss-in, but even he’s not without upside. Picked in the 13th round of the 2022 draft, the 6-foot-3 right-hander had a solid 2023 pro debut against Low-A hitters and fits the profile the Twins tend to look for in potential velocity gainers. They’ll give him a chance to stick as a starter and Bowen’s fastball/slider combo could also work in relief.

Topa is a late-blooming 32-year-old right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA and 61-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings last season, ranking 14th among American League relievers in Win Probability Added. He surrendered just four homers thanks to a mid-90s sinker that generates a ton of ground balls, and his slider can miss some bats, giving Topa an appealing late-inning profile.

Topa is owed $1.25 million for 2024 via arbitration and will also be under team control in 2025 and 2026, likely inexpensively, so he could prove to be a highly valuable component of this trade if last year’s breakthrough was for real. He will join a Twins setup mix that includes Brock Stewart, Griffin Jax, Caleb Thielbar and Josh Staumont, working in front of closer Jhoan Duran.

DeSclafani has battled injuries the past two seasons, including missing the final two months of last year with a strained elbow, but he’s expected to be ready for spring training and will likely fill the fifth rotation spot alongside Pablo López, Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan and Chris Paddack. When healthy, he’s generally been a solid mid-rotation starter, posting a 4.20 ERA in 942 2/3 career innings.

DeSclafani is at the end of a three-year, $36 million deal, but the Twins are on the hook for just $4 million. That means beyond adding much-needed rotation insurance with the 34-year-old right-hander, and bumping Louie Varland to Triple-A starter or big-league bullpen depth, the Twins also created around $7 million in flexibility within their self-imposed payroll limit to fill other holes.

“We have some savings here that adds to the flexibility we have going through the free-agent market,” Falvey said. “We still think there are ways we can utilize some of that money to improve the club. We’ll continue to find ways to add. … I think our focus might turn more to the position player route.”

Trading a player like Polanco is rarely popular, never easy and not without risk. But it’s a move the front office felt compelled to make because of his age and injury history, combined with the Twins’ young infield talent, self-imposed payroll crunch and roster needs. They did well to cash in Polanco for a top-100 prospect, quality veteran rotation and bullpen depth and some spending room.

(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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