Simba out to 'keep everybody on their toes'

January 31st, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- It'll probably be best for opposing hitters to avoid the left side of Minnesota's infield in 2021.

The Twins have their new starting shortstop after signing free agent to a one-year, $10.5 million deal on Sunday. It's an addition that figures to benefit Minnesota in several different ways, as Simmons not only provides a steep defensive upgrade, but he also addresses the Twins' need for a utility player by freeing up Luis Arraez to move around the infield.

Simmons has earned a reputation as the position's premier defensive wizard throughout his career, and the Twins will now have a chance to pair his highlight-reel glove alongside that of Josh Donaldson at the hot corner to make life much easier for Minnesota's pitching staff.

"When I'm on the field I bring the awareness," said Simmons. "I try to, I wouldn't say educate, but keep everybody on their toes, making sure everybody knows what the next play should be. Where we should get the out or, 'Watch out for this runner. He's trying to steal. Make sure every base is covered.' I know I try to limit the amount of pitches every pitcher makes.

"Down the line, that's a big difference if you can keep your pitcher from making an extra 15 pitches. Keeping them from making those extra 15 pitches every game by making sure you make every play or make as many plays behind them as possible, you've got a healthier pitcher, you've got a better staff. Down the road in the playoffs, everybody is a little fresher and not as worn out. I guess that's part of what I bring to the table."

As a result of the move, Jorge Polanco is expected to become the starting second baseman, while Arraez will move to the multipositional role vacated by Marwin Gonzalez. Polanco made 200 appearances at second base in the Minors, but he hasn't played the position regularly since 2016. Arraez is already no stranger to moving around, as he split time between second base (49 appearances), shortstop (8), third base (17) and left field (21) during his '19 rookie season.

Though the 31-year-old Simmons wasn't as productive with the bat in 2019 or '20, his four American League Gold Glove Awards and 2013 Platinum Glove Award (given to the best overall defender in each league) are among many indications of the extent to which he will improve the Twins' defense. Simmons' 113.1 Ultimate Zone Rating and 191 defensive runs saved since his debut in '12 are, by far, the highest of any qualified shortstop in that span, more than double that of his nearest competitors.

In fact, according to Sports Info Solutions, Simmons has the most defensive runs saved of any defender in baseball over the past 10 seasons, with a healthy lead over second-place Kevin Kiermaier.

"There are so many ways that he fits into what we do and what we are trying to accomplish," said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. "We have one of the best, I think, pitching staffs as a whole in the American League, and for us to be able to complement that group with basically one of the greatest defenders of our generation, and to be able to put Andrelton at the shortstop position, which also allows us to really solidify everything going on in the rest of our infield as well.

"It doesn't just add to our defense. I think it's going to add to the way our pitchers throw the ball and go about their business, and I just think that the ability to help ourselves on that side of the ball in such a dynamic way was something that we couldn't resist."

Simmons' bat has regressed a bit over the last two seasons, and he's posted a career slash line of .269/.317/.379, but he does bring elite contact ability to the Twins' powerful lineup, ranking within MLB's top 10 percent of qualified players in both whiff rate and strikeout rate in each of the last two campaigns. He slashed .297/.346/.356 without a homer in 30 games for the Angels last season and missed time due to a left ankle injury.

There is some upside in the bat to pair with the defense, too, as Simmons showed in 2017. That season, he finished eighth in the AL Most Valuable Player Award voting after he posted a .752 OPS with 14 homers and 38 doubles -- good for 7.8 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference.

The Twins could have sought a utility replacement for Gonzalez, but that market shrunk over the past month with the signing of Jurickson Profar by the Padres and Kiké Hernández's agreement with the Red Sox. A one-year commitment to Simmons also makes sense in organizational context, as No. 1 prospect Royce Lewis is close to impacting the Majors but still needs some additional time to develop, and Polanco could remain available to slide over to shortstop if needed.

Minnesota already added right-handed reliever Hansel Robles and veteran left-handed starter J.A. Happ to its roster this offseason. The club could still seek additional help in the starting rotation and bullpen -- and designated hitter Nelson Cruz remains unsigned.

"We've put ourselves in position to go to the playoffs and win the division the last few years," Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. "We're never sitting back and thinking that will naturally happen again.

"We've got to go attack it, and when we try and find impact players, whether it's defensively, offensively, on the mound, starters or bullpen, that's our goal. We feel like now, with Byron Buxton in center field and Andrelton at short, if you like defense in a baseball game, I suggest you tune into a few of ours."