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Zulgad’s Roundup: First-place Twins can’t afford to have much patience with Miguel Sano in his return

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Jun 6, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Twins first baseman Miguel Sano (22) throws his helmet after striking out aKansas City Royals during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Twins must have felt they had no choice but to activate Miguel Sano after he missed 75 games because of knee surgery in early May, but his return to the big-league roster creates issues at a time when one would assume the AL Central leaders have placed a priority on trying to win and are no longer worried about giving second, third or fourth chances.

While Sano slashed .333/.422/.795 with three doubles, five home runs and 11 RBIs in 12 games on a rehab assignment with the FCL Twins and Triple-A St. Paul, he got off to a horrible start in the big leagues this season before his injury. Sano hit .093/.231/.148 with one homer and three RBIs in 17 games.

The issue is that if the righthanded-hitting Sano is going to be with the Twins, he needs at-bats and that means rolling the dice on what you are going to get. Sano was miserable against both righthanded and lefthanded pitching this season — .086 against righties, .105 against lefties — and last season hit only .238 against southpaws and .216 against righthanders.

So it’s not a slam dunk to start him against lefthanders. There also is the issue of who will Sano take at-bats away from and where will he play? He had played 16 games at first base before injuring his knee, but that position has been split between Luis Arraez, Jose Miranda and Alex Kirilloff. Arraez and Kirilloff have looked comfortable at that spot, while Miranda remains an offensively productive work in progress in the field.

For the first game of a two-game series at Milwaukee on Tuesday, Sano was batting ninth and playing first base against Brewers lefty Ethan Small. Arraez, who is leading the AL in hitting with a .341 average but is batting .237 (14-for-59) against lefties, was not in the lineup.

Sano also is likely to be used at designated hitter, but the Twins have found success in rotating that spot around with 14 players getting time at DH this season. One option would be to use Sano at DH with Miranda at third, Arraez at first and Kirilloff in the outfield. That would force Gio Urshella (.265/.309/.412 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs in 84 games) to the bench.

The biggest issue defensively will be when Byron Buxton is rested or used at DH as he continues to battle a chronic knee condition. Buxton, who received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection during the All-Star break and sat out the Twins’ two wins over the weekend in Detroit, was back in center field on Tuesday.

Sano being activated cost backup center fielder Gilberto Celestino his roster spot. Celestino was only 3-for-21 in July but is considered an above average center fielder by FanGraphs. Nick Gordon, who will be Buxton’s primary replacement in center field, is below average. Considering the Twins pitchers need all the help they can get, weakening the defense for any amount of time is taking a gamble.

This likely will come down to the patience the Twins will be willing to show with Sano. A year ago, the Twins were headed for a last-place finish and Sano’s ups-and-downs didn’t really matter. This season, the Twins are 3.5 games up on Cleveland and 4 up on Chicago in the AL Central and there’s little room for patience.

There also could be the hope that the Twins can move Sano by next Tuesday’s trade deadline, but the odds of getting anything in return would seem to be small. Sano is in the final season of his contract — he is signed for $14.25 million next season, but there is an almost certain-to-be-exercised club option for a buyout of $2.75 million — so there’s little chance he will return in 2023.

Can Sano change the minds of the Twins’ brain trust in the coming weeks or will he pick up where he left off in May? If it’s the latter, don’t be surprised if the Twins decide to move on from the once-promising slugger before September arrives.

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