Miguel Sano was struggling so badly during the 2018 season that the Twins decided they had to do something drastic to get his attention. The decision was made in June of that season to demote him all the way to Single-A Fort Myers.
Sano, who had made the AL All-Star team in 2017, was hitting .203 with nine doubles, seven home runs, 27 RBIs and led the major leagues in strikeout percentage at the time with 66 in 148 at-bats. He also was out of shape. The feeling was being at the Twins’ spring training facility would help him more than going to Triple-A Rochester.
Sano was still a third baseman at the time — he wouldn’t make the full-time move to first until 2020 — and considered a big part of the Twins’ future. Sano returned to the big leagues in late July and finished the season hitting .199/.281/.398 with 13 home runs, 41 RBIs and 115 strikeouts in 266 at-bats in 71 games.
Sano got himself into much better shape entering 2019 and delivered the type of season the Twins expected. He slashed .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs, 79 RBIs and 159 strikeouts in 380 at-bats in 105 games. That was a lot of strikeouts but it also was a significant amount of offensive production for a franchise that set the Major League single-season home run record.
The Twins’ patience and plan with Sano appeared to have paid off.
Two years later, and nearing the seven-year anniversary of Sano’s big-league debut, that patience appears to have run out as Sano struggles through a second consecutive season. The 28-year-old wasn’t in the starting lineup again Wednesday as the disappointing Twins faced the White Sox in Chicago.
He has started only three of the past 10 games. Sano hit a game-winning home run in the 12th inning of the Twins’ 7-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on June 21 at Target Field, but that was only after he entered in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner for the hobbled Josh Donaldson. The day before Sano replaced Nelson Cruz in Texas after the designated hitter departed because of tightness in his neck in the third inning.
Sano’s issues have nothing to do with injury and everything to do with a lack of production. His slash line entering Wednesday’s game in Chicago was .196/.281/.437 with 14 homers, 34 RBIs and 83 strikeouts in 199 at-bats in 58 games. These numbers have turned the right-handed hitting Sano into a platoon player, with each of his past three starts coming against lefthanders.
What’s interesting is that Sano has been horrible against lefties this season, slashing .179/.264/.295 with three homers, nine RBIs and 28 strikeouts in 78 at-bats and 36 games. Against righthanders, Sano is hitting .207/.292/.529.
Sano’s reduced playing time is a clear indication of the Twins’ desire to move on to a new first baseman. Left-handed hitting rookie Alex Kirilloff, called up in late April, appears to be a better first baseman than corner outfielder. He has started each of the past seven games in which Sano hasn’t been in the lineup at first.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said he has talked to Sano about his reduced playing time. “He’s still going to get his opportunities and at-bats,” Baldelli told the Pioneer Press. “And when he does get those at-bats, we’ve talked with him about just staying focused, being ready and going out there and doing a good job when we call his name. He understands. No one is pumped up about not playing every day. No one is pumped up about losing their at-bats. But he fully understands the situation, and he’ll be ready to go.”
Since seeing his playing time drop, Sano is hitting .400/.471./.667 with one home run, two RBIs and two strikeouts in 15 at-bats and five games. This wasn’t the plan when Sano signed a three-year, $30 million contract before the 2020 season. He’s making $11 million in the second year of that deal and is on the books for $9.25 million next year. The Twins have a club option for 2023 that will enable them to buy out Sano for $2.75 million.
It’s fair to wonder if he will make it that long in a Twins uniform. No player on the Twins’ roster is as polarizing as Sano. One portion of the fan base still believes he’s the next Harmon Killebrew, while another sees him as a strikeout machine whose power doesn’t justify his poor at-bats and maddening inconsistency.
There’s a chance Sano will get a last chance to redeem himself with the Twins. Cruz, who is a free agent after this season and was signed in 2019 in part to mentor Sano, likely will be moved before the July 30 trade deadline. That should open up at-bats at DH.
There is no guarantee, however, that the Twins’ patience hasn’t run out with Sano. His ability to hit a baseball a mile might thrill fans, but his struggles and strikeouts have made him a liability. The question is whether the Twins can find a team to give them something of significance for a guy who has gone from can’t-miss prospect to part-time player?