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Position-switching Jorge Polanco enjoys pain-free start with Twins

MINNEAPOLIS — After having surgery on his right ankle for the second straight offseason, Jorge Polanco has enjoyed a pain-free start to spring training with the Minnesota Twins.

Camp came with a position switch for Polanco, too, which won’t hinder his goal to put those injury problems in the past.

“I feel more comfortable, getting my at-bats, getting my feet down,” Polanco said after his move from shortstop to second base was essentially certified in the team’s exhibition opener. “It feels great to be back after the surgery and having had a couple of at-bats.”

After making the All-Star team in 2019 while hitting .295 with 40 doubles, seven triples, 22 home runs and a .356 on-base percentage, Polanco had a cleanup procedure — called a debridement — to address a chronic impingement that stemmed from repetitive stress on the joint.

Then after playing through further discomfort in the ankle during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Polanco had an operation to remove a mild bone spur and a small bone chip on the outside of the ankle. He played in 55 of 60 games but saw his slugging percentage fall from .485 to .354. In his last 15 games, including the playoffs, Polanco hit .167 with just two extra-base hits. He also committed a two-out throwing error in the first game of the AL wild card series against Houston that preceded a three-run ninth-inning rally by the Astros.

Polanco said he considered having the surgery during the season. Instead, he opted to play through. The switch-hitting 27-year-old was hurt the most while trying to bat from the left side, with a .227 average in 169 plate appearances. He hit .345 in 57 plate appearances right-handed.

“Sometimes I played with no pain, but sometimes it was very painful,” Polanco said. “I just kept making my rehab to see if it would get better, and it didn’t.”

The Twins lauded Polanco’s toughness, but they’d obviously prefer the fresher version. Manager Rocco Baldelli said he sees the improvement in Polanco’s face.

“I think there’s an excitement level there for him and all of us to just watch him play and not have to worry about anything health-wise,” Baldelli said.

Playing second base with less territory to cover ought to help. When the Twins signed Andrelton Simmons, a four-time Gold Glove award winner at shortstop, Baldelli called Polanco to tell him he had a new position. No problem, he said.

“I think I can be pretty dang good at second base,” said Polanco, who already has played to the left of second base on countless occasions due to the team’s preference for shifting.

The next domino to fall during the winter was the transition by Luis Arraez from regular second baseman to the multi-positional player Marwin González was for Minnesota for the previous two years before departing as a free agent. Arraez, too, had injury trouble last season, in the form of tendinitis in his left knee, and has begun camp with a fresh start.

“My knees feel good, way better than last year,” said Arraez, who will see most of his time at second base, third base and left field.

Polanco will still take turns at shortstop. Miguel Sanó is now the regular first baseman but could still see occasional action at third base. Alex Kirilloff is on track to take over in left field, but he’s capable of time at first base, too. The more flexibility across the roster, the better, which was a sentiment Baldelli conveyed in his initial conversation with Polanco about the switch.

“He said on the phone, ‘Anytime you need me to play, I will be there to play,’” Baldelli said. “And Luis echoed the same sentiment: ‘Whatever you need me to do, I’m going to be ready.’”

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