Polanco: 'I can be pretty dang good at 2B'

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It didn't take long for Jorge Polanco to realize that something was wrong -- again. The 2020 season had barely started when Polanco realized that his problematic right ankle still didn't feel good. In fact, he learned several months before the end of the season that he'd require surgery on the area for a second straight offseason.

This spring, he's finally at full health as he plays a new position, giving him and the Twins hope that he's ready to rebound to the All-Star form that eluded him in 2020.

"I think he's moving around really well," manager Rocco Baldelli said after the Twins' 7-6 win in their spring opener against the Red Sox on Sunday. "Looks great. You can see it in his face. It's been a while since he's been completely healthy coming into camp. I think there's an excitement level there for him and all of us to just watch him play and not have to worry about anything health-wise. It's very nice."

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Polanco had some good at-bats, too: a walk in the first inning and a bases-loaded free pass in the second that were more emblematic of the kinds of plate appearances that he put together as the American League's starting shortstop in the 2019 All-Star Game than those from last season, when he struggled to a .658 OPS while continuing to experience discomfort in his ankle.

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With Polanco moving to second base due to the arrival of Andrelton Simmons, there should be less pressure on the ankle that required an arthroscopic debridement following the 2019 season and the removal of a bone spur and bone chip following the '20 season.

What's the potential there?

"You want to look at what he's capable of doing offensively and you put him at second, we may be talking about a top-five second baseman in the league," infield coordinator Tony Diaz said.

Let's first look at the offensive component. Both Polanco and the Twins noted that his left-handed swing in particular was affected last season by his lingering ankle issues, resulting in a regression from a .306/.378/.513 line from that side in '19 to a .227/.287/.318 mark in '20.

He's always been better from the left side throughout his career, and the fact that his left-handed OPS was 200 points worse than his right-handed mark last season makes the impact of the problem clear -- as does the fact that his average exit velocity as a left-handed hitter dipped considerably, from 88.6 mph in 2019 to 84.9 mph in '20.

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"It was kind of painful sometimes," Polanco said. "Sometimes it was getting good. That's why I didn't know at first if I needed another surgery. Because sometimes I played with no pain, and sometimes it was very painful."

The Twins put Polanco toward the top of the lineup against right-handed pitchers for the last two seasons because they believe in his ability to take good at-bats and make solid contact from the left side. Getting that component of his game back will be critical for both the overall well-roundedness of the lineup and Polanco's success.

"I feel more comfortable getting my at-bats, getting my feet down," Polanco said. "It feels great to be back after the surgery and having had a couple of at-bats."

On defense, there's no question that a move from shortstop to second base should help Polanco's skill set play up. The metrics haven't been kind to him at shortstop over the years despite continued hard work at the position, as he's been worth negative Defensive Runs Saved in every Major League season, totaling minus-34 over seven years.

Though Polanco could continue to see limited time at shortstop as a backup, moving his experience across the bag will certainly serve as a big defensive upgrade over Luis Arraez, and the range and arm that occasionally proved problematic at short should fit right in at the new position.

The Twins expect that once a healthy Polanco gets acclimated to a handful of new wrinkles at second base -- most notably, playing in shallow right field for pull shifts against left-handed hitters -- he'll play a big role in what they hope will be significantly improved infield defense.

"You've got a shortstop playing second," Diaz said. "When you have a legitimate shortstop playing second, that mentality alone, I think that's going to be impactful."

"I think I can be pretty dang good at second base," Polanco said.

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