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40 in 40: Jorge Polanco is the centerpiece at last

Shedding the last of the shadows, Polanco leaves a strong legacy in Minnesota for dreams of stabilizing Seattle’s lineup.

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It’s uncommon for players as good as Jorge Polanco to be overshadowed. No, the 2019 All-Star is hardly an unknown, but there has scarcely in Polanco’s baseball-playing career been a moment where stood in the spotlight. Now, arriving as the centerpiece that in all likelihood caps a whirlwind offseason for the Seattle Mariners, Polanco will have a chance at his days in the sun.

Signed in 2009 by the Minnesota Twins out of San Pedro De Macoris, one of the beating hearts of baseball talent in the world, Polanco was already used to being the second name listed. The talented infielder was not merely part of the heavily scrutinized international amateur class of the ‘09 season. Raised and trained within San Pedro De Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Polanco played with Miguel Sanó since the age of 12, earning a six-figure signing bonus dwarfed by Sanó’s then-record-setting $3.15 million deal, in an infamous process that became the subject of the 2011 documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero. Up the Twins system Polanco climbed, ever in Sanó’s shadow, and indeed it seemed assured Polanco’s career would exist in the shade, even if it did emerge eventually. Debuting in 2014 but scraping just nine big league games between that season and 2015, for the first and only time Polanco cracked preseason Top-100 lists ahead of the 2016 season, and even then merely the final few names. He was good, clearly, but never the main attraction.

A decade after his debut, the story has shifted. Sanó’s promising career has waned to signing a minor league deal this week with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, while Polanco was the jewel of a trade that returned to his former club several players, including a OF Gabriel Gonzalez, a prospect ranked in the same tier Polanco himself only reached on the cusp of his big league debut. It is time for the switch-hitting infielder to take center stage.

The highlight reel power in key moments is something easy to find evidence of for Polanco in his Minnesota tenure. In 2023 and 2022, Polanco’s offensive profile shifted towards a more power-focused approach, building off a massive 2021 campaign where he clubbed 33 homers and was one of the league’s best middle infielders. Impressively, even with some nagging injuries, Polanco managed to put up excellent offensive numbers in line with his ‘21 breakout, making for three different versions of an excellent player in ‘21, ‘22, and ‘23. He struck out more than ever last year, but still walked at a healthy clip, albeit less than his exceptional 14.4% rate in 2022. Despite nagging ankle and knee issues, connected in part to a back issue that ended 2022 early and delayed his preparation for 2023, Polanco played half the season and performed at his usual high level, playing at a 3-4 win pace as he has each full season since the start of 2018.

In 2024, Seattle would take any of the three variations of hitter Polanco has displayed in recent years, provided of course that Polanco can stay healthy. The 30-year-old has a peculiar history, having played through nagging ankle issues at times in his early career and never landing on the injured list until 2022 as a big leaguer. Because Minnesota utilized him as a utility player for his first few seasons, and then Polanco received an 80-game suspension for testing positive for Stanozolol in the midst of his 2018 season, the once-slap-hitting shortstop has a few more holes in his playing history than a typical Minnesota cheese curd. Seattle’s gamble is that Polanco’s health can be better managed with their depth, and that it will not be as much of a disruption in 2024 and 2025. If they’re right, they’ll have locked up a gem.

FanGraphs’ Depth Charts’ median projection for Polanco is as a 2.9 fWAR player, with 602 plate appearances in 139 games, hitting .253/.331/.434 at a 115 wRC+. Every one of those numbers would not simply be the best performance at second base for the Seattle Mariners since they traded away Robinson Canó, it would, in a single season, outdo the total production by any individual across multiple seasons since the departure of Bret Boone besides Canó and the several years of Dustin Ackley. Though defensively, he grades out with subpar range, Polanco tends to make up for things with his bat, and he has a chance to break an uninspiring trend from Seattle’s Plan A people at the keystone.

The parade of disappointing veterans in Canó’s wake have sparked mistrust, as Dee Strange-Gordon, Adam Frazier, and Kolten Wong all struggled to match their past performance. However, Polanco arrives to the M’s two years younger than Wong, with a far lengthier - and more consistent recent - track record of hitting. If you’d like a specific statistical reason to trust Polanco’s performance moving forward, it is that he continues to make contact on pitches in the strike zone at an above-average rate (84.5% in 2023 vs. 82.0% for MLB), while chasing at essentially a league-average rate (28.4% vs. MLB 28.5%), and did vastly more damage on contact when he did swing, with a barrel rate that skyrocketed to 89th percentile in MLB. In short, while Polanco is succeeding offensively in a different way than the slap-and-dash sprinter who was the American League’s starter at shortstop in the 2019 All-Star Game, he has not been simply getting lucky.

The player who co-managed the Twins for the day with manager Rocco Baldelli’s blessing has grown into a leadership role. In a Kyle Seager-esque fashion, the Polanco’s always-secondary nature to the larger names in Minnesota’s system among which he came up made his emergence as a strong big leaguer all the more exciting. Beloved for his consistency and spending parts of 10 seasons in a Twins uniform, “Polo” was unabashedly beloved in Minnesota, even as the Twins’ glut of middle infielders made him ultimately expendable. In Seattle, he’ll have the starting second base role all to himself, though his experience at third base will allow Seattle some flexibility.

The top of Seattle’s lineup may very well now look like J.P. Crawford, Julio Rodríguez, and Polanco, which both could look far worse, and places sizable pressure on Polanco now to handle such a responsibility. Where Seattle’s lineup lacks an additional clear star right now, it is built on breadth, something Polanco can consistently provide with a medley of ways to contribute offensively. Odds are, on Opening Day, Polanco will step into the three hole just as he did in 2022, only this time he’ll be doing it for the Mariners instead of against them.