Inbox: Position change looming for Sanó?

November 15th, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- With awards season having reached its conclusion, the baseball world can fully turn its focus to planning for next season. The qualifying offer deadlines and decisions have come and gone, the wheels of free agency are slowly rumbling to life and -- rather quickly -- the Winter Meetings are less than a month away.

What better time for another installment of the Twins Inbox? The questions selected for this week concerned the defensive outlook for 2020, next week's upcoming decisions regarding protection from the Rule 5 Draft and the all-too-pervasive question as the Twins seek pitching on the market. Let's dive right in.

The Twins are going to work with what they've got, because nobody's looking to take any significant playing time away from or , particularly after the offensive seasons that they had in 2019. There could be a move to first base in store for Sanó at some point in his career, but manager Rocco Baldelli has suggested that the Twins don't feel any urgency to make that transition for now.

But, as you say, the defense was absolutely an issue on the left side of the Twins' infield this year. Polanco's 22 errors at shortstop trailed only Tim Anderson of the White Sox, while his 1 DRS was middle-of-the-pack and his minus-9.1 UZR tied Anderson for worst among Major League shortstops. The numbers were similar for Sanó, who tied for the second-most errors at third base, with 17, while his minus-5 defensive runs saved ranked him in the bottom third at his position.

With that said, 2019 could be seen as a transitional year in the field for both Polanco and Sanó in some ways. Polanco worked with infield coach Tony Diaz to lower the angle on his throwing motion and committed to that lower arm action for the first time in 2019. Sanó didn't have the benefit of Spring Training to ease back into game speed, and the big man was also getting used to a slimmer, more flexible frame for the first time in the field. More reps should only help their comfort level.

They both have the tools to succeed -- I'm looking at Sanó's cannon throwing arm in particular -- and have shown commitment to improving their defense over the last several years. Their offensive prowess buys them time to continue to figure it out.

The Twins have until Wednesday to add prospects to their 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, which will be held at the conclusion of this December's Winter Meetings in San Diego. Minnesota's 40-man roster currently stands at 32 after Jake Odorizzi accepted the qualifying offer on Thursday.

Among the prospects ranked in the Top 30 of the Twins' organization by MLB Pipeline that aren't already on the 40-man roster, five are Rule 5 eligible: shortstop Wander Javier (No. 7), right-hander Jhoan Duran (No. 9), outfielder Gilberto Celestino (No. 20), right-hander Griffin Jax (No. 21) and infielder/outfielder Travis Blankenhorn (No. 23).

Duran appears likely to be protected, as he finished the 2019 season with Double-A Pensacola after posting a 3.76 ERA with 136 strikeouts in 115 innings across 23 appearances (22 starts) in Pensacola and Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Blankenhorn is also a candidate for protection after a solid season in Pensacola in which he showed off positional versatility (games at second, third and left field) with a combination of power (18 homers, 18 doubles) and speed (11 steals). And though Jax doesn't have much strikeout ability, he did peak at Triple-A Rochester in 2019 and has a 3.18 career ERA in the Minor Leagues.

Celestino is a 20-year-old who has only played three games above the Class A level, while Javier has struggled with injuries throughout his career and posted a .601 OPS in Class A Cedar Rapids this season. Even if left unprotected, it could be tough for a claiming team to keep either on its Major League roster for a full season. Other prospects outside of the top 30 to keep an eye on include right-hander Dakota Chalmers, outfielder Luke Raley and outfielder Zander Wiel.

I've addressed the Rosario question before, but I wanted to revisit it this week. You mentioned the "dollar impact" of seeking a pitcher in free agency as opposed to the trade market and I want to use that as a springboard to elaborate on where the finances stand as the Twins enter this offseason.

With Odorizzi having accepted the qualifying offer, the Twins have just shy of $49 million committed to contracts for Odorizzi, Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Max Kepler and Polanco in 2020 and with likely raises due to arbitration-eligible players, they'll have around $90 million in estimated commitments as a baseline.

According to data from USA Today, the Twins carried an Opening Day payroll of $114.9 million in '19, but they did have a franchise-high Opening Day payroll of $128.4 million in '18, when they were also coming off an appearance in the playoffs. As you mentioned, Minnesota still has a need for two starting pitchers, as well as a strong backup catcher. In general, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine have said that they don't like to take any options off the table as they survey the market -- whether in free agency or trade.

Now, does Rosario fit as a trade candidate? It's an idea that has gained traction among many Twins fans over the last several months as top outfield prospects like Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach near the Major Leagues. Keep in mind, though, that the Twins are entering win-now mode. Even considering Rosario's uber-aggressive plate approach and lack of on-base ability, he's still a hitter with proven, consistent 25-homer power, and those immediately behind him -- Jake Cave and LaMonte Wade Jr. -- have yet to establish themselves as consistent MLB contributors.

Moving Rosario would present the need to fill that lost production by taking a chance on a younger player, anchoring Gonzalez more in the outfield or finding someone else on the market. As the Twins have seen firsthand with and Sanó in the past, immediate production from top prospects is no sure thing. Is it wise to subtract from one area of the Major League team to add to another? That's something the Twins have to decide this offseason.