Twins 2018 Position Analysis: Third Base
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA TodayProjected Starter: Miguel Sano
Likely Backup: Eduardo Escobar
Depth: Ehire Adrianza, Erick Aybar, Taylor Featherston
Prospects: Travis Blankenhorn, Andrew Bechtold, Jose Miranda
It's all too easy to forget now, but just eight short months ago, Sano was the lone All Star rep from Minnesota's lineup. By the break, he already had 21 home runs with an OPS over 900, solidifying his status as long-term cog in the Twins infield.
Though clearly playing above his listed weight of 260 pounds, he still respectably held his own at third base, making the majority of routine plays and occasionally flashing excellence with his cannon arm.
Sano is an incredible talent. Let's not lose sight of that. He launched a pair of leisurely home runs on Friday in his sixth game of the spring, and that kind of thing should still be the expectation. If he's in the lineup, he's going to be a major threat. Even with his downslide after the All-Star break last year, the 24-year-old was on pace for 37 home runs before going down with a shin injury in August. With 71 career dingers in the books before age 25, he's on a rare pace.
There are forces working against Sano – some of his own making, others not. But he is young enough to overcome them and put them in the rear view mirror. If it's always darkest before the dawn, then perhaps we're on the verge of a true breakthrough, which in Sano's case would simply mean a full season's worth of games (he's yet to play more than 116 in an MLB campaign) while realizing his 40 HR, 100+ RBI potential.
In the event that Sano needs to miss time due to a suspension, setback with his leg, or some other affliction, the Twins are blessed with a pretty strong fallback option. Eduardo Escobar filled in brilliantly at the hot corner last year after the starter went down, slugging .529 with 10 bombs to basically mirror Sano's prodigious power output.
Escobar finished with a .758 OPS overall, and has slashed .257/.304/.413 over the past four seasons. He's a better contingency than most teams have behind their best hitter, and his presence has been a big factor in mitigating the sense of alarm around Sano's ambiguity.
Optimism aside, the alarm is well warranted. Sano has an assault investigation floating over his head, a steel rod in his shin, and plenty of skeptics surrounding him in the organization. Those might include his manager.
Always measured in his words, Paul Molitor conveyed some leeriness when talking to Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press last month:
“I think the trend has been [Sano's] figuring some things out; some things have been a little harder to get through to him,” Molitor said. “At times I’ve tried to involve people that might be able to provide a voice that will penetrate. We’re just trying to get him to see the bigger picture.
“He loves to play. It’s all in front of him. He, as much as anyone in that clubhouse, wants what’s in front of him, but I’m not sure he understands what is required to reap those rewards — of competing, winning, financial security, taking care of his family. We’re trying."
Such sentiments toward Sano are nothing new, but it was easier to be sympathetic when he was a 22-year-old rookie. Today he's a 25-year-old who's shown up at camp with – in the kindest possible phrasing of his general manager – a "generous carriage." According to Pat Reusse, Sano is rumored to have weighed in this spring at 293 lbs.
Where would that heft rank among all major-league players? It's almost impossible to say, given the sweeping inaccuracy of official listings (again, MLB's site still has Sano at 260), but I think we can safely say he's among the top handful of players. There's not likely a larger fielder outside of first base in the game.
This isn't a knock against his all-around outlook as a big-leaguer, because I happen to believe that Sano can be a monster hitter even at three bucks, but the reality is that he's on the verge of becoming untenable at third base. A certain spryness requisite to the position becomes elusive for a man so large.
Barring a reversal in physical development, which might be unrealistic given his genetic makeup, Sano appears destined for DH. The question is when. Minnesota's front office is hoping he can hold out as long as possible, because right now the system is thin on replacements.
Yes, Escobar can fill in short-term. But he's eligible for free agency after this season. And the next in line behind him as a legit starting option at the position is... well, completely unclear. A trio of recent high draft picks stand out as the brightest long-term hopes: 2015 third-rounder Travis Blankenhorn (21), 2016 second-rounder Jose Miranda (19) and 2017 fifth-rounder Andrew Bechtold (21). But none will be arriving anytime soon.
So suffice to say it would be really nice if Sano could hold it down at third for at least a couple more years. Which might help explain why the Twins haven't really entertained the idea of moving him off the position, and in fact delayed any possibility of such an outcome by signing Logan Morrison.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's all about Sano. If he can make a statement by proving himself healthy and at least serviceable defensively, the Twins will be more than happy to stick with him at third indefinitely. Sano's agility has always been better than you'd expect for his size, so maybe he'll surprise us even at this weight.
More likely, he'll need to put in work and slim down a bit to remain viable at the hot corner, but that's a perfectly feasible scenario. It's important to keep in mind that he was extremely limited in his ability to condition this past offseason. To pin the lack of weight loss on disinterest would be ignorant.
If things go amiss for the star slugger this season, Escobar provides a solid security valve, for now. After 2018, the front office may need to look at building out some better long-term depth at the position. Hopefully someone like Blankenhorn or Bechtold can take a big step forward.
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