Why the Twins gave early contract extensions to Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco

Two key players have big paydays coming.
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For those keeping score at home – and for those who blindly ignore the fact – the Twins have handed out $80 million this winter in free agency and contract extensions. 

Most recently, they reportedly inked Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco to multi-year contracts that will pay each player $35 and $25 million, respectively. 

Kepler and Polanco have been good, but certainly not great players over the last few years. Regardless, both are deserving of contract extensions and the Twins were right to extend them early.

Kepler

He probably isn't the first, but Kepler has to be one of the few players who earned a five-year contract extension on the heels of a season in which he had a .224 batting average.

But that doesn't tell the full story.

In 2018, Kepler became a much more disciplined hitter cutting down his strikeout rate and drawing nearly twice as many walks. 

  • 2017: 47 walks, 114 strikeouts in 147 games 
  • 2018: 71 walks, 96 strikeouts in 156 games

We know there's power in his bat – 20 home runs and 54 extra-base hit last season – but the plate discipline is a fantastic indicator of maturity in a player (age 25) who's entering his prime. 

After being downright abysmal against left-handed pitching early in his career, Kepler actually had a better OPS (.745) against lefties than righties (.720) last season.

Also, Kepler's contact rate – number of pitches in which contact was made – was the highest of his career in 2018, according to Fangraphs.

  • 2016: 80.6% 
  • 2017: 78.9% 
  • 2018: 83.3%

So he's putting the bat on the ball, now he needs to simply put it in play more to supplement his numbers.

Finally, Kepler's an elite defender. His 10 defensive-runs saved was the ninth most in baseball last season among outfielders. He also showed he can play center field, upping his versatility. 

The peripherals around Kepler is what makes him stand out. If he can even become a consistent .250 hitter, he'll provide even more value.

Polanco

Can Polanco put it together for 162 games in 2019? In 2017, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball through August and was pretty much playing out of necessity. 

Then something clicked and Polanco became a superhuman. All of a sudden he was batting third in the lineup, including in Minnesota's playoff game at Yankee Stadium.

  • April-August: .213/.265/.305, 3 home runs, 15 doubles, 22 walks, 6 stolen bases.
  • August-October: .316/.377/.553, 10 home runs, 15 doubles, 19 walks, 7 stolen bases.

Now those numbers are hard to repeat, nonetheless it set the table for even higher hopes for Polanco in 2018. Those hopes were dashed, however, when he was hit was an 80-game PED suspension before Opening Day.

Despite the time off, Polanco came back with strong numbers. It wasn't the superhuman level we saw to close out 2017, but his contributions were well above league average for shortstops. 

  • Polanco: .288/.345/.427
  • League average: .248/.318/.409

With a glove, Polanco committed 13 errors yet still had a positive (0.7) defensive rating via WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

It wouldn't be too surprising to see Polanco transition to second base down the road, especially if top prospect, shortstop Royce Lewis, keeps moving up the minor league ranks. For now, Polanco is a solid option at shortstop.

Phil Miller of the Star Tribune reported the terms of Polanco's deal, which includes a $1 million buyout option in the final two years, but 2024 will be guaranteed if he earns 550 plate appearances in 2023.

  • 2019: $3.6 million 
  • 2020: $3.8 million 
  • 2021: $4.3 million
  • 2022: $5.5 million
  • 2023: $7.5 million 
  • 2024: $10.5 million 
  • 2025: $12 million

Meanwhile, Aaron Gleeman of Baseball Prospectus broke down Kepler's deal.

  • 2019: $6 million 
  • 2020: $6.3 million
  • 2021: $6.5 million 
  • 2022: $6.8 million 
  • 2023: $8.5 million 
  • 2024: 10 million (option year)

So it doesn't look like the deal will hurt the team in the long term.

Remember when the Twins signed Brian Dozier to a four-year, $20 million contract early in his career? 

That ended up being a great deal for Minnesota. Dozier became an All-Star and by the time his contract ended he was no longer the same player who was worth an additional investment.

The Twins are betting that Kepler can be even better than traditional numbers suggest while Polanco is already above average at the plate for a shortstop.

They might not be perennial MVP candidates but they're the kind of guys a team can build around.

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