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Zulgad: Now or never: Miguel Sano will get one final chance to prove he belongs with Twins

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Minnesota Twins
Jul 22, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins first baseman Miguel Sano (22) hits a double in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Two days ago, Miguel Sano was a struggling platoon player getting occasional starts at first base against lefthanded pitchers and probably wondering if this was how his time in Minnesota would end. Forty-eight hours later, Sano remained that same player with one big difference: The Twins are going to give him a final chance to prove he belongs.

The wheels for this were set in motion on Wednesday when the Twins announced Alex Kirilloff would undergo season-ending wrist surgery. It continued Thursday as designated hitter Nelson Cruz was traded to Tampa Bay for two pitching prospects.

Kirilloff had been starting against righthanded pitchers, meaning his absence will open up first base for Sano to reclaim the job on a full-time basis. Cruz’s departure also will create more opportunities for DH at-bats.

The Twins (41-56) have 65 games remaining in this miserable season after losing 3-2 to the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday night at Target Field. Depending how Sano looks in that time likely will determine whether he returns for the 2022 season or is sent packing because the Twins have seen enough.

There are some who still can’t believe the Twins would give up on Sano — he has a season left on his three-year, $30 million contract that includes a club option for a $2.75 million buyout for 2023 — but the usually patient Twins decision to begin platooning him in June spoke volumes about their frustration.

Zulgad: Moving on? Twins’ patience appears to have finally run out with Miguel Sano

Since Sano’s arrival in 2015, the Twins have done everything possible to try to get him to become the star player they expected. Former general manager Terry Ryan thought playing Sano in right field, instead of third base, in 2016 would help him stay in better shape. That plan was abandoned after it became clear Sano was going to get himself hurt if left in the outfield.

He was moved to first base full time last season after free agent addition Josh Donaldson took over at third. Sano was coming off an impressive 2019 in which he slashed .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in 105 games. Cruz had been signed in 2019 in part to mentor Sano and his locker was put right by Sano’s in the Twins’ clubhouse in Target Field.

Sano showed up for spring training in 2020 in outstanding shape and ready to work on making the move to first base. But when the pandemic shut down the season everything changed. Sano battled COVID-19 during the break and hit only .204/.278/.478 with 13 home runs and 25 RBIs in 53 games. The Twins likely hoped that a healthy Sano would rebound, but that hasn’t happened.

After going 1-for-3 on Thursday, Sano raised his average to .200 with 15 home runs and 35 RBIs in 73 games. Still, Sano has only one home run and one RBI in his past 17 games dating to June 22. Sano also has 17 strikeouts in 52 at-bats in that time. His strikeout on Thursday gives him 100 for the season in 245 at-bats, putting him at 100 or more strikeouts in six of his seven big-league seasons. The only time he didn’t reach that total was last year, when he had 90 in 186 at-bats in what wasn’t close to a full season.

If Sano was having a terrible year and the Twins were as good as had been expected, there is no question his playing time would remain limited and the hope would be that he would hit an occasional monster home run. But all hope has been lost for this season and that has created an opportunity to see if there is any hope for Sano.

If he continues to look lost at the plate, the Twins will have only one option. Accept the fact Sano will go down as one of the biggest disappointments in franchise history and sever ties with him.