Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's middle infield.Around the Horn series: C | SP | 1B | 3BMINNEAPOLIS -- It was difficult for Twins Territory
Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's middle infield.
Around the Horn series: C | SP | 1B | 3B
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was difficult for Twins Territory to say goodbye to Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar at least year's July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, after the pair of fan favorites had spent parts of seven seasons with the Twins.
But the next generation of Twins infield prospects is almost here.
Nick Gordon, the No. 4 prospect in the organization, could make his Major League debut this season. Luis Arraez, ranked 15th in Minnesota's system, finished the season in Double-A and was added to the 40-man roster. Royce Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft and the team's top prospect, has an invitation to Major League Spring Training after showing off his impressive tools in two professional seasons.
In the meantime, the Twins signed Jonathan Schoop to a one-year deal with the hopes that a bounceback season from the former Orioles slugger could replace some of Dozier's lost power production up the middle. Jorge Polanco returns as the team's starting shortstop after slashing a career-best .288/.345/.427 in 2018, a season abbreviated by an 80-game suspension.
What can the Twins expect from Schoop?
The Twins moved quickly to sign Schoop during the offseason after he was non-tendered by the Brewers, and it was a move that made sense for both sides. The 27-year-old is still in his physical prime and could be a cost-effective, high-ceiling acquisition in the short term, until Gordon is more seasoned in the Minor Leagues. Schoop's youth means he can seek a multiyear deal next offseason if he shows that he can rebound from his down 2018.
The second baseman missed 20 games last April and May with a right oblique strain, but he said that his struggles had less to do with his injury and more with pressing too hard to help his underperforming team upon his return. (The Orioles were 8-26 when Schoop returned to the lineup on May 8.)
"[I learned] to see what you can do and just calm down and let the game come to you," Schoop said of his struggles.
Whatever the reasons were, Schoop, an American League All-Star in 2017, was more aggressive at the plate and made less consistent contact last season. He had grown slightly more patient in '17, walking at a career-best 5.2 percent clip, but that walk rate went back down last year as he swung more often and chased more pitches out of the zone. When Schoop did make contact, he wasn't hitting with as much authority, as his hard-hit rate dropped from 37.2 to 30.6 percent in '18, his lowest mark since Statcast™ began tracking in '15.
All that added up to a subpar .233/.266/.416 line last season, and it got worse after Schoop's trade to Milwaukee, when he lost regular playing time down the stretch and moved around between second base and shortstop.
Schoop still hit 21 homers in the down year, and he's only one year removed from being the fifth-most valuable second baseman in baseball, according to Fangraphs' calculation of WAR. If a healthy offseason and added stability (plus the addition of his beloved mentor Nelson Cruz) can set Schoop back on track, he could be one of the steals of the offseason at $7.5 million. If not, the Twins are off the hook after one year.
Will Polanco be the team's leadoff hitter?
With Dozier, Joe Mauer and Robbie Grossman all gone, the Twins are also trying to plug a hole at the top of their lineup, as there isn't a clear leadoff-type hitter that stands out on Minnesota's roster. Perhaps Byron Buxton could still become that hitter in the future, but until he shows consistency at the plate, Polanco might be the team's best option.
Among the Twins' returning hitters from 2018, Polanco had the highest on-base percentage, at .345, but the switch-hitter had pronounced platoon splits, as he reached base at a .387 clip against right-handed pitching but saw that drop to .259 against southpaws. The 25-year-old's career platoon splits are more neutral, but he's never taken many walks against left-handers.
Max Kepler could also be an intriguing option, after he showed a strong improvement in his walk and strikeout rates last season and put up better numbers across the board against left-handed pitching.
What does the depth look like?
Ehire Adrianza, who is out of Minor League options and provided a capable utility bat for the Twins last season, should be the primary backup around the infield. The newly acquired Ronald Torreyes, who signed a one-year, $800,000 contract earlier this offseason to avoid arbitration, is a career .281 hitter in the Major Leagues and should also be involved throughout the season.
When Gordon was promoted to Triple-A Rochester last May, he initially got off to a strong start, hitting .338 in his first 17 games. But he struggled down the stretch, finishing the season with a .212/.262/.283 line in his first taste of Triple-A ball. If he acclimates to Triple-A this season, he should be in line for a September callup, if not sooner, depending on the Twins' roster needs and playoff prospects.
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 1 Lewis (age: 19, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 4 Gordon (age: 23, highest level: Triple-A)
No. 8 Wander Javier (age: 20, highest level: Rookie ball)
No. 15 Luis Arraez (age: 21, highest level: Double-A)
No. 18 Travis Blankenhorn (age: 22, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 21 Yunior Severino (age: 19, highest level: Rookie)
No. 28 Jose Miranda (age: 20, highest level: Class A Advanced)
Projected depth chart (2018 statistics)
Schoop (.233/.266/.416, 21 homers, 61 RBIs, 80 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR)
Adrianza (.251/.301/.379, 6 homers, 39 RBIs, 82 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR)
Polanco (.288/.345/.427, 6 homers, 42 RBIs, 110 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR)
Adrianza (.251/.301/.379, 6 homers, 39 RBIs, 82 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR)
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.