The Twins will sign 25-year-old Jorge Polanco to a seven-year contract on Friday that guarantees the shortstop $25.75 million through 2023 and has two team option years for 2024 and ’25. They also will sign 26-year-old Max Kepler to a five-year deal worth $35 million with an $11 million option for 2024 or a $1 million buyout.
It’s a credit to the Twins front office, primarily Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine, if this is the beginning of their plan to sign their young stars to long, team-friendly deals.
It also is a credit to owner Jim Pohlad, who has never limited the team’s payroll, and President Dave St. Peter, who have long said this collection of young talent is the future of the team.
With the Twins losing the face of their franchise with the retirement of Joe Mauer, Falvey knows if the team is going to succeed — on the diamond and, just as importantly, in growing attendance at Target Field — young stars Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are the biggest keys to this season and the future.
There is no question the Twins will look to sign Buxton and Sano to long-term deals. Both are under team control for 2019, ’20 and ’21 before becoming unrestricted free agents in 2022.
“Those guys are in great spots,” Falvey said. “Let me talk first about Byron, who had a great winter. We saw him up at TwinsFest and he’s physically in as good of a spot as we have seen in a while, feels really strong. I know he is excited to get going here soon.
“Miguel, we made it a focus. We talked about it all offseason, and I think some of those people who got a chance to see his at-bats playing in winter ball in the Dominican Winter League thought he was moving as well as he had before. He certainly put his body in a better position to come into camp. I’m hopeful again with him that we just continue to make progress with respect to where he needs to be physically. Because when those two guys are on the field and healthy and performing, that is when we’re at our best.”
In 2017, when the Twins captured an AL wild-card spot, Buxton played 140 games, won a Gold Glove in center field and hit .253 with 16 home runs. Sano was named an All-Star that season, hit .264, played in 114 games and had his second consecutive season with at least 25 home runs.
But in 2018, both had lost, injury-plagued seasons. Sano played in 71 games and Buxton only 28. They both hit under .200 (Sano .199, Buxton .156).
The Twins were able to win 78 games last season with an underperforming Sano and Buxton, which is one reason many baseball observers believe they can challenge for the AL Central title.
Balancing the roster
Falvey talked about the Twins’ decision to sign 33-year-old first baseman Lucas Duda to a free-agent deal, and how the team balances getting spring training at-bats for a veteran such as Duda while also creating opportunities for their younger, developing players.
Over the past five seasons with four MLB clubs, Duda has averaged 20 home runs and hit .239 in 114 games.
“Lucas is someone who has a lot of experience,” Falvey said. “A great complementary bat as a lefthanded hitter who can play first base and DH. We do have some righthanded hitters on our roster, so he does complement some of those guys in the event that we have a unique spot on our roster to fill, where he could potentially help out with C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz on those days when you’re facing a tough righthander.
“But the young guys, they will get the at-bats that we planned for regardless. Guys like [outfielder] Alex Kirilloff and [infielder] Royce Lewis, they just need to be sponges. That is what I explain to them. They need to learn and absorb and soak in as much as they can from veteran players who are around, because their time is coming.”
Value of Tyus and Tre
Former Apple Valley standout Tre Jones played a key role in Duke’s 23-point comeback victory at Louisville on Tuesday. Even though Jones had a tough shooting night, going 2-for-10 from the field for just six points, he had five rebounds, two assists and two steals and his full-court defense in the second half completely changed the game.
This year Tre and his older brother, Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones, have proved their value.
When Tre was injured early in Duke’s contest vs. unranked Syracuse on Jan. 14, the team lost 95-91 in overtime. In the Blue Devils’ next game five days later, which Tre missed, they edged then-No. 4 Virginia at home 72-70.
But with Tre back for the rematch in a tough environment at Virginia earlier this month, the Blue Devils won 81-71. Tre had 13 points on eight shots along with seven assists and six rebounds.
The Wolves have received similar contributions from Tyus, who has missed the past 13 games.
Tyus was averaging 5.4 points, 4.0 assists and 1.7 rebounds per game. But more importantly, according to defensive rating stats at NBA.com (which measures a player’s efficiency at preventing the opponent from scoring), Jones was the Wolves’ best defender with a rating of 104.1. He was even better than Robert Covington, who was NBA first team-all defense in 2018, and has a defensive rating of 105.6.
There’s no doubt one big reason the Wolves have struggled lately is because they are missing Jones’ defensive play and his ability to run the team’s second unit.
Year 27 for Grant
Mike Grant, who will be back for his 27th season as football coach at Eden Prairie, reports that one of his sophomores, Justice Sullivan, will be one of the top players in the state next year. Sullivan, who can play linebacker or defensive end, is also a sprinter on the track team.
Sullivan’s father is Jake Sullivan, the record-setting Tartan basketball standout and former Iowa State star who was profiled by Chip Scoggins in the Star Tribune on Sunday. Justice already has taken a recruiting visit to Iowa State and also has heard from the Gophers.
Grant says the Eagles, who have won 11 state titles under him, are going to have to replace a large number of players, including graduated quarterback Cole Kramer, now with the Gophers.
Former Vikings coach Bud Grant, who never misses a game his son coaches, says he thinks Kramer is one of the best young quarterbacks he has ever seen and predicts a big future for him with the Gophers.
Two former Eden Prairie standouts who became exceptional college linebackers will be at the NFL combine in Indianapolis at the end of the month: the Gophers’ Blake Cashman and Wisconsin’s Ryan Connelly. Cashman was a defensive back and receiver at Eden Prairie and Connelly played quarterback.