ALDS Takeaways, Part 2: Miguel Sanó and the Athleticism Gap
Image courtesy of © Raj Mehta-USA TODAY SportsThree games should hardly form the basis of a team’s offseason mentality, but this five-part series will explore five takeaways from the ALDS series that seem both clearer and more important now than they did a week ago. Here is the link to Part 1.
Neither hit was Sanó’s fault, exactly. The smart money says he was instructed to move off the line before the Gardner single by the Twins dugout, to better align him with the rest of the shifted infield. The Torres ball was hit hard, and the team hadn’t had a shift on against Torres, so Sanó was a step further from the line than he might have been otherwise.
(It’s a story for another time, but the Twins were on track to shift more often against right-handed batters than any other team in baseball until about mid-August, and then they plunged into the middle of the pack. That paradigm shift is somewhat inscrutable, at least for the moment.)
Still, they each demonstrated something true about Sanó, something the Twins will have to reckon with this winter on a large scale: he’s a below-average third baseman, especially when a particular play puts a premium on quick reaction and a good first step.
At Baseball Prospectus Night at Target Field in August, GM Thad Levine said the team tried to keep Sanó at third whenever they could in 2019, believing he remained more engaged with the game both day-to-day and plate appearance-to-plate appearance when manning the hot corner. That might be so, and it might have been sufficient justification for lining things up that way throughout this season, but in 2020, they need to find a way to keep him engaged and his production maximized while slotting him in at first base every day. As a team, and especially as an infield, they suffered from a fatal dearth of athleticism and defensive prowess in the ALDS. That was thrown into particularly sharp relief by the dazzling play of the Yankees’ very strong defensive infield.
Sliding Sanó over to first base diminishes the value of his strong arm, but his range and hands would be fine there with a solid winter of work. The team ought to encourage him to play in the Dominican Winter League (but to stay far away from podiums, of course, should he win another championship there), and to work to become the best defensive first baseman he can be. As demonstrated by everyone from Albert Pujols to Mitch Moreland, it can be better to be an overqualified first baseman than to be an under-qualified defender elsewhere on the diamond, and there are more ways to stay intimately connected to the action at first base than it might seem.
Of course, that move would squeeze C.J. Cron out of the picture. That’s somewhat regrettable, because he put together some brilliant at-bats for the team and (when healthy) added tremendous power for a bottom-of-the-order hitter. However, on balance, it’s the right choice. Cron’s thumb injury hampered him so much throughout the second half that he’s no sure bet to bounce back in 2020, and his arbitration salary will be inflated by his strong power numbers.
Swapping Cron for Sanó and finding a replacement at third base who brings more athleticism is necessary, but not sufficient. The team needs better athletes in the outfield, too, unless Byron Buxton has a fully healthy season next year—and at this point, betting on that outcome would constitute malpractice. Trading Eddie Rosario, while a painful proposition, certainly has to be a consideration, but his likely replacements in left field are Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, and neither of them is an above-average defensive outfielder, either.
This is where Royce Lewis might soon enter the frame. His encouraging offensive showing in the Arizona Fall League and dubious recent scouting reports on his future at shortstop allow one to envision him reaching the parent club as a third baseman (he’s played there most of the time in the AFL) who moonlights as a speedy outfielder, by the middle of next season. One way or another, though, the team has to upgrade its defense, and that starts with Sanó changing mitts.
For Part 1 of this series, click here.
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