MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s not over yet for the two longest-tenured members of the Twins’ organization.
2024 represents the final year of Kepler’s contract, while Polanco has another club option remaining for the ‘25 season. However, both players could generate trade interest this offseason due to the Twins’ relative depth in the outfield corners and at second base -- and their need for pitching.
“We walked in with a lot of confidence in both those guys, so maybe more external questions than internal questions for us,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said after the season. “You know those are two really good players. We've known those guys longer than probably almost anybody in that room, so I think we're proud of what they both accomplished.”
Kepler and Polanco have been in the Twins’ organization since 2009, when alongside Miguel Sanó they headlined Minnesota’s most decorated international signing class. They signed extensions before the ‘19 season, and though there might have been some doubt at various points along the way as to whether they’d be back in ‘24, both Kepler and Polanco showed their importance as part of Minnesota’s American League Central-winning roster this season.
Kepler in particular rebounded from a trio of down campaigns from 2020-22, hitting .260/.332/.484 (.816 OPS) with 24 homers, marking his best OPS and homer totals since his breakout campaign as the leadoff hitter for the “Bomba Squad” team in ‘19. He played his customary excellent defense in right field, finishing fourth among AL right fielders in fielding run value, per Statcast.
He was especially important in the second half, when he hit .306 with a .926 OPS as part of the Twins’ surge to the finish for their first AL Central title since 2020 and their first postseason series win since ‘02.
“The way the team played in the second half, I think, re-energized Kep, but it also worked the other way around, too,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think Kep re-energized the team.”
Though Polanco had been the Twins’ iron man from 2019-21, playing almost every game as a fixture toward the top of the lineup, lingering knee issues and recurring hamstring troubles held him back in ‘22 and ‘23 -- though he remained a productive, switch-hitting cornerstone to the lineup when healthy.
But does this necessarily mean both Kepler and Polanco will be back on the roster in ‘24? Only time will tell.
Given their skill sets and relatively affordable contracts, the Twins figure to get plenty of trade interest in both players, and Minnesota also has a need to replenish its pitching depth. Gray, Kenta Maeda, Tyler Mahle and Dallas Keuchel are all headed for free agency (barring the unlikely scenario in which Gray were to accept the qualifying offer).
The depth behind Polanco is perhaps more clear, with rookie standout Edouard Julien showing a more capable glove at second base down the stretch and top prospects Austin Martin and Brooks Lee -- both middle infielders -- almost certain to make their big league debuts in ‘24.
But Polanco’s ability as a contact-oriented switch-hitter with power is also something that Baldelli values a lot in his platoon-oriented lineup construction, so it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.