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Zulgad: Twins doing Sano a disservice by playing him everyday, so here’s what they should do

Twins Sano Baseball
FILE – In this Oct. 4, 2019, file photo, Minnesota Twins third baseman Miguel Sano prepares to take batting practice before Game 1 of an American League Division Series baseball game against the New York Yankees, in New York. Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sanó told a Dominican Republic newspaper he’s being blackmailed, having been accused of kidnapping and assault. The Twins said Thursday, June 18, 2020, they’re aware of the report in El Nuevo Diario and still trying to gathering more information about the situation surrounding Sanó, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract in January and will move to first base if and when the 2020 season begins. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

The Twins had taken a 4-0 lead on the Seattle Mariners in the third inning Sunday afternoon at Target Field, when Miguel Sano came to the plate with Byron Buxton on third and one out. Sano, who entered the game hitting .100, had fouled to first with a run in, two outs and men on first and second in the opening inning.

This time he worked the count full before swinging at righthander Chris Flexen’s 91 mile-per-hour cutter for strike three. Sano would come to the plate again in the fifth with the Twins up 6-0 after Buxton’s two-run homer. Max Kepler had doubled off Flexen and the Twins had a chance for a big inning that could put away the Mariners. Flexen offered an 89 mile-per-hour cutter to Sano on the first pitch and the big first baseman gently tapped the ball back to the pitcher. Jake Cave struck out and Ryan Jeffers grounded to second.

The Twins’ failure to add on to their lead came back to bite them as the Mariners rallied for an 8-6 victory that included Kyle Seager’s go-ahead, three-run homer in the ninth against reliever Alexander Colome. Seattle left Target Field having won two of three, and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was left to ponder a few things as his team prepares to play host to the red-hot Boston Red Sox in a four-game series scheduled to begin Monday.

Among the most important questions for Baldelli is what to do about Sano? Playing him on a daily basis has become an exercise in futility and, honestly, unfair to the player. Sano is 3-for-33 with one homer, three RBIs, seven walks and 16 strikeouts. He is slashing .091/.250/.182.

As much fun as it has been seeing Buxton get off to a phenomenal start, it’s equally as disturbing to see Sano turn into an automatic out. The problem is that this is no longer a case of a small sample size.

While the Twins have only played nine games, Sano’s futility dates to a horrendous pandemic-shortened 2020 when he slashed .204/.278/.478 with 13 home runs and 25 RBIs in 53 games. He struck out a big-league leading 90 times in 186 at-bats. Sano arrived for spring training in 2020 in fantastic shape and the biggest concern at that point was how smooth his move from third to first base would be.

But then the pandemic hit, and when the Twins returned to Target Field in July to begin preparing for the season, Sano was in quarantine after having contracted COVID-19. As Sano struggled, one thought was that he might be dealing with the after-effects of coronavirus. But if that was true then, it wouldn’t be true now and Sano looks as lost as ever.

Baldelli seems content to leave Sano in the lineup and hope a hot stretch will come — you know, the ones were he hits the baseball a mile a few times in a short stretch and we’re all convinced everything will be fine — but how long can one hold out this type of hope? Sano, who was hitting sixth in the lineup on Sunday, homered and drove in two runs in the Twins’ 8-2 victory in Milwaukee on April 4 but has only one hit and one RBI since.

There are some who want to trade Sano, but what is he going to get you in return? Nothing at this point. In January 2020, signed Sano to a three-year, $30 million contract extension with the Twins that included a team option for a fourth year. The deal would max out at $41 million over four years. That appeared to be a solid move at the time, given Sano was coming off a strong 2020 season in which he hit .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in 105 games. (He also struck out 159 times in 380 at-bats.)

But Sano has given the Twins little return on that contract and now they must begin at least considering their options to either get him on the right track (if that’s possible) or at least not make him a daily part of the lineup.

The problem is the Twins don’t have a lot of options on their current roster when it comes to guys who can play first base. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who is close to returning after suffering a hamstring injury in the opener, would seem like a candidate to play first but he has only played five games, with one start, at that position in 10-plus major league seasons. Catcher Mitch Garver has 11 games of experience at first, including four starts.

One possibility exists in Alex Kiriloff, who many feel did not start this season with the Twins because the team wanted to stop him from getting a year of service time. Kiriloff did not help himself by struggling at the plate in spring training. Kiriloff will not accrue a full year of Major League service time that will count toward free agency, if he does not join the Twins until Saturday.

Kiriloff has been expected to take over as the Twins’ left fielder, but he did play 35 games at first base for Double-A Pensacola in 2019. (He made five errors so to assume he’s a finished product at first would be a mistake.) What’s interesting is that Kiriloff saw extensive time at first base last summer during the Twins’ training camp at Target Field, so club officials wanted to get a look at him at that position.

The Twins could consider a non-Sano lineup that would have Luis Arraez in left field, Donaldson at third and the lefthanded-hitting Kiriloff at first. Sano would be on the bench in those situations. That doesn’t mean he would never start and when he does the Twins could use Kiriloff or Arraez in left. This might not be ideal but neither is playing Sano everyday.

That’s also the best course of action, given the Twins are unlikely to make a major decision about Sano’s future anytime soon. Even those who continue to think Sano remains a key to the Twins’ future and that his success is just around the corner, would have to agree. Sticking with the current plan — and hoping for a hot streak — is no plan at all.