Twins’ Top 5 shortstops: Park’s take

April 20th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only ... if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Do-Hyoung Park's ranking of the Top 5 shortstops in Twins history since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961. Next week: Left fielders.

• Twins' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B

1) (1976-82, '85-87)

Key fact: Played 1,148 games with the Twins, more than any other player who appeared at shortstop

The club's all-time leader among shortstops in home runs, Smalley offered a well-rounded balance of hitting, power and defense at the position that would prove to be rare. He first arrived in Minnesota with a splash in the trade that sent future Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven to the Rangers, and he made the next six Opening Day starts at the position. He earned the starting nod in the 1979 All-Star Game after hitting a stellar .341/.424/.535 with 15 homers in the first half and received 16 American League Most Valuable Player Award votes despite a steep drop-off in the second half.

Smalley was traded to the Yankees in 1982 and spent short stints in the Bronx and with the White Sox before he returned to Minnesota for the final three seasons of his career and was part of the first World Series-winning team in club history in '87 before his retirement. At that point, he had been supplanted as the starting shortstop by Greg Gagne and didn't start any postseason games, going 1-for-2 with a double and two walks in the World Series against the Cardinals. All told, he reached double digits in homers five times for the Twins and posted a career .750 OPS with the club.

He remains a presence around the franchise as a television analyst for a selection of Twins broadcasts every season on FOX Sports North.

2) (1961-67)
Key fact: His 7.0 fWAR in his 1965 AL MVP season remains a single-season club record among shortstops

Versalles never again came close to replicating his monster numbers from the '65 campaign, when he paired his Gold Glove Award defense at shortstop with an AL-leading 126 runs, 45 doubles, 12 triples and 308 total bases to become the first Latin-American player in Major League history to win an MVP Award. Still, he remains an indelible part of Twins history due not only to that honor, but also for joining Don Mincher, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew on the team that won the first AL pennant in club history. He led the Twins with eight hits in their World Series defeat to the Dodgers.

Though he led the AL in triples in three straight seasons from 1963-65 and reached double digits in homers four times with the Twins, his numbers took a sharp dive in '66, and he was traded to the Dodgers with pitcher Mudcat Grant following the '67 season, in which he hit a paltry .200/.249/.282 in 160 games. A lingering back injury in '68 limited any attempts at rebounding later in his career, and he was out of the league by age 31 after a 66-game stint with the Braves.

3) Greg Gagne (1983-92)
Key fact: Was the starting shortstop for both World Series championship teams (1987, '91)

Like many on this list, Gagne wasn't an exemplary hitter, but his sparkling defense and his part in both of the club's World Series championships have made him arguably the most celebrated shortstop in team history. After establishing himself as the club's starting shortstop in 1985, his age-23 season, he made the next seven Opening Day starts at the position and hit for decent average and power until he departed Minnesota for Kansas City following the 1992 season. He left the Twins with 69 homers, 335 RBIs, 79 stolen bases and 1,140 games to his name.

Gagne homered in Games 3 and 4 of the 1987 AL Championship Series against the Tigers, and he later added hits in Games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the World Series, including the go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning of Game 7. He had a much quieter postseason in '91 but hit a key three-run homer in Game 1 of the World Series that accounted for the margin of victory in that contest against the Braves. Gagne was elected to the Twins Hall of Fame in 2010 and was named to the Twins' All-Metrodome Team commemorating the Metrodome era from 1982-2009.

4) (2014-present)
Key fact: Started the 2019 MLB All-Star Game, becoming the first Twins shortstop to do so since Smalley in 1979

Let's account for future value a bit, too, in this list. Polanco finally had his big breakout season in 2019 and was voted to his first career All-Star team, and though he played through injury for much of the second half, he still posted a .295/.356/.485 line with 22 homers and 40 doubles, showing a strong mix of contact and power ability. His 4.0 WAR last year, per FanGraphs, marked the fifth-best season by a shortstop in club history, and his .485 slugging percentage in '19 set a new best for the position. Though he struggles on defense, Polanco should have plenty of time to continue building his offensive résumé with the Twins after he signed a five-year, $25.75 million extension last year.

5) (1999-2004)
Key fact: Led the Major Leagues in triples three times (2000, '01, '03)

As far as WAR is concerned, Nick Punto would have earned the final spot on this list, as his stellar defense and baserunning rank him fourth in club history among all shortstops. But Guzman's outlier season in 2001 was enough to earn him an All-Star Game nod and even four MVP votes. Though Guzman was never much of a hitter outside that season, he was consistently good at hitting triples -- topping out at a club-record 20 in 2000 -- and had longevity on his side. He remains the last shortstop to have made more than two consecutive Opening Day starts for the Twins, as he made six in a row before he moved to the Nationals in free agency.

Honorable mentions
One last time, Punto barely misses the cut as perhaps the cult hero-iest of all shortstops that have passed through Minnesota in recent history for his gritty play and stellar defense. ... This list wouldn't be complete without a mention of Eduardo Escobar, who was beloved around Twins Territory for his dazzling personality, bromance with Brian Dozier, love for Fogo de Chão and -- later in his Minnesota career -- slugging ability. ... Pat Meares never had an above-average season with the bat, but he reached double digits in homers twice during his six years with the Twins.