Why the Twins need Byron Buxton back sooner than Miguel Sano

Mlb: Minnesota Twins At Seattle Mariners
May 16, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) greets third baseman Miguel Sano (22) following an 11-6 victory against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Before the long-awaited season gets underway Friday in Chicago, the Twins will have difficult decisions to make on whether to bring back Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, after both players spent much of Summer Camp on the sidelines.

Buxton and Sano are very different players, but each has had stretches of stardom in the big leagues while also struggling to consistently stay on the field. Buxton’s well-chronicled injuries limited him to 115 games over the past two seasons (though the Twins didn’t call him up when he was presumably healthy in September 2018, understandably angering Buxton while giving the Twins an extra year of control). Sano has never made it through a full season healthy, topping out at 116 games played in 2016.

This season, they’re again both trying to get healthy, with the hope of being ready for Opening Day. Buxton is rehabbing a mid-left ankle sprain suffered on July 13, when his ankle turned awkwardly while tracking a fly ball in an intrasquad game. He hasn’t appeared in a game since, but told reporters he’d be ready by the start of the season. Sano played in his first intrasquad game Sunday after missing the first two weeks of Summer Camp recovering from COVID-19. He drew a walk and struck out twice.

Sano and Buxton both need reps at the plate, but time is running out. Rocco Baldelli said Sunday that if the season started Monday, Sano probably wouldn’t be in the lineup.

“When you’re short on time, it’s really hard to do,” Baldelli said of Sano getting his timing back. “You also can overwork a guy to get him back into game shape in the box. There’s no real magic formula. … You need to see the pitches, you do need to put swings on the ball.”

In a 162 game season, the answer would be simple for both players: ease them back via time in extended spring training and a rehab stint in the minors. This year, it’s more complicated. Minor league games aren’t an option, though they could face pitchers training at the Twins’ alternate Summer Camp site in St. Paul. Holding them out for a week or two, though, means sacrificing a significant portion of the schedule. Missing the season’s first ten games, for example, would be the equivalent of missing 27—essentially a full month–in a normal year.

While Buxton and Sano are in a similar place in terms of needing offensive reps to get their timing, how the Twins view the pros and cons of rushing them back is likely very different.

If he’s near full-health, having Buxton in the lineup Friday in Chicago brings a lot of value, regardless of his offensive production. His defense is so spectacular that even when he’s an offensive liability, his impact on the pitching staff is substantial. Buxton, of course, is arguably the best defensive center fielder in the game, and won a Platinum Glove–awarded to the best defensive player in MLB–in 2017. That’s incredibly valuable on any club, but particularly important for a Twins team that rates out below average in the field–perhaps their only true weakness. Aside from Buxton, only Josh Donaldson and Max Kepler are considered above average at their positions, and Buxton’s absence means Kepler is forced to shift to center, where defensive metrics are less kind to him. Though team record oversimplifies a player’s impact, Minnesota’s 62-25 mark in games in which Buxton played last year, compared to 39-36 without him, is telling. He’s a superstar when he’s hitting, and when he’s not, he goes a long way toward mitigating the impact of mediocre team defense.

Sano’s value, on the other hand, comes almost entirely at the plate, where the Bomba Squad is obviously very well-stocked. He accumulated 3.0 bWAR last year despite playing a below-average third base, thanks to his .923 OPS. He’s a notoriously streaky hitter, capable of carrying an offense at his best, hitting doubles and home runs in bunches and taking walks instead of expanding the zone. At other times, he struggles mightily to make contact and strikes out at a huge clip. In three separate ten-game stretches last summer, he struck out 21 times in 38 at-bats, 17 times in 35 at-bats, and 20 times in 37 at-bats. In the playoffs, he struck out eight times in 12 at-bats.

The Twins can live with the slumps because the tradeoff is huge power and strong overall production.  His wRC+–a stat that attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value–of 137 ranked 22 among all major league hitters with at least 400 plate appearances last season. In other words, when Sano is right, he’s among the better hitters in baseball and a valuable part of arguably MLB’s best lineup. When he’s slumping, his limited defensive value makes him a liability, with utility players like Marwin Gonzalez and Ehire Adrianza providing more stability.

The Twins, then, have to weigh the negative impact a slumping Sano could have on a season where every at-bat is critical with the game-changing power he can provide when his timing is right. If, as Baldelli admitted, his timing isn’t there yet, keeping him out of an already elite lineup until he’s had more reps would seem to make sense. We’ll surely see the slugger in the lineup sooner than later, but unlike Buxton, slow-playing him may be the right call.