The dizzying run of extensions this spring drew quite a lot of attention. Several contracts were pointed to as being notably team friendly. Others were of obvious importance because they involved superstars entering walk years.
The sheer volume of transactions tended to obscure the fine details of each particular decision. And several of the extensions were all but buried in the news. When the Twins set up the mics to announce extensions for Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, the full rush of deals hadn’t yet occurred. But the moves came at the same time that star hurlers Aaron Nola and Luis Severino were signing on the dotted line, drawing much of the attention away from a Minnesota club that was coming off of a middling 2018 season and hadn’t been quite as bold as might have been anticipated in free agency. And the flood of later signings ensured that the Twins’ deals would receive relatively little attention.
Frankly, given the costs involved, those signings did not represent an especially monumental moment for the franchise. The Joe Mauer contract, this was not. The Twins did not strike deals with top young starter Jose Berrios or high-end outfielder Eddie Rosario, both of whom would likely have commanded bigger dollars. Better-known former top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano weren’t really in position for extensions after rough seasons.
So, did we sleep on the Twins? From a team perspective, the roster upside was obvious, but nobody foresaw a 36-17 start to the year and a ten-game lead over the sagging Indians. And what of the extensions they signed? Any sober examination of the Polanco and Kepler contracts at the time of signing would have noted the potential upside but settled on relatively modest expectations. With a third of the season in the books, both deals look like slam dunks.
Let’s look first at Polanco. When the Twins promised him $25.75MM over five years, they were obviously quite comfortable with the risks and had expectations of excess value. But it’s hard to imagine they anticipated the sort of monster production they’ve received from the 25-year-old shortstop.
When MLBTR’s Steve Adams pointed to Jose Ramirez as a comp, he was thinking primarily of the latter’s contract — not his ensuing breakout. As it turns out, Polanco has followed Ramirez in converting contact ability into power.
This can’t be called a total surprise. As Adams wrote in assessing the Polanco deal, “if he can tap into a bit more power, there’s perhaps room to take his game to another offensive level.” Certainly, the Twins felt there was something more in the tank after a strong but hardly elite showing in 2018. The stated expectation was that the “best is yet to come” and that Polanco would “continue to develop and grow.”
But that was all projection and feel-good press conference talk. Did anyone really think Polanco would turn on the jets in this manner? He’s now slashing .332/.404/.584 with nine home runs in 228 plate appearances. Better yet, he has boosted his walk rate up to 10.5% and hasn’t even needed to add swing and miss (14.9% strikeout rate) to boost his pop. There’s likely a bit of regression in store, with a .363 BABIP and decent spread in Statcast results/expectations (.418 wOBA vs. .382 xwOBA). But the arrow is obviously pointed upward.
It’s easy to see how the contract could become the sort of bargain that helps fuel a lengthy contention window. One need only look at Ramirez. The Twins had ample control over Polanco already, as he was only a 2+ service-class, non-Super Two player. (He’d have had more but for an ill-advised PED suspension.) Because they made the deal before arbitration and in advance of a true breakout, the Twins can control Polanco through the 2025 season for a total cost of just $47MM, with the final two seasons coming via option ($10.5MM/$1MM buyout, $12.5MM/$750K buyout).
Things are looking quite nice on the Kepler side of things as well. He inked a five-year, $35MM deal. The calculus was different from the get-go in his case, though the decision to make the deal was also driven by a belief that he was primed to improve. Kepler had already reached arbitration as a Super Two, agreeing to a $3.125MM salary with the organization earlier in the winter. With three more arb trips to build from that baseline, and a track record of solid home run production, Kepler was able to command a higher payday.
In some respects, this was the riskier deal for the team. True, he had shown plenty of skill: the 26-year-old had already cracked twenty long balls, turned in three seasons of .180+ isolated power, and made great strides in his plate discipline in 2018 (11.6% walk rate vs. 15.7% strikeout rate). He’s also regarded as a quality defensive outfielder. At the same time, it took a bit of a leap of faith to entrust this kind of cash in a corner outfielder that hadn’t yet turned in a full season of league-average production by measure of wRC+.
So far, so good. Kepler has already launched a dozen long balls in 211 plate appearances. He’s maintaining that strong K/BB blend. And he’s up to a .281 batting average on a .272 batting average on balls in play — a reversal of some poor fortune from 2018 (.224 batting average, .236 BABIP). Statcast credits him with more hard contact (44.5%) and a loftier launch angle (17.2 degrees) than ever before.
Kepler’s early showing surely makes the Twins feel even better about their commitment than they did at the time. Beyond the $35MM guaranteed, the Twins have another year of control at just $10MM ($1MM buyout).
Will Polanco and Kepler keep this up for the long haul? Or even the duration of the present season? That’s hard to say. A fair but conservative estimate would anticipate some regression. But it’d also recognize a very real increase in the present and anticipated future on-field value of these players.
While these contracts largely fell through the cracks at the time they were struck, they now look to be among the best buys of the spring. The team deserves credit for rightly identifying these targets. But it’s also a credit to Polanco and Kepler. They accepted reasonably fair deals, based upon their prior track records, then set to work turning those contracts into potential bargains. As for the Twins organization, these deals didn’t change the near-term complexion of the roster in the least. But they sure do help brighten the long-term outlook.