Twins 2019 Position Analysis: Third Base
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Miguel Sano
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Willians Astudillo, Ehire Adrianza, Ronald Torreyes
Prospects: Jose Miranda, Yunior Severino, Charles Mack
From 2015 through 2017, Sano slashed .254/.348/.496 with 71 home runs and 195 RBIs for the Twins – all before turning 25 years old. Last year he totally collapsed, the cumulative result of mounting bad health breaks, worsening habits at the plate, and perhaps some general lapses in personal commitment.
He needed to put that season behind him and start fresh. It's very early, but signs are positive on this front. The bad health breaks haven't ceased (he's getting a late start this spring after lacerating his heel in January) but the heightened commitment is evident to those who've seen him at camp, where he showed up in his best shape since 2015.
Sano is very accomplished, and still on the young end of "primeness" at 25. This is a point where many great hitters throughout history have made the jump from experiencing success in spurts, to pulling it all together. One example is Justin Morneau, who turned 25 and then launched a five-year reign of dominance that included four All-Star nods and one MVP.
The same game-changing offensive ability resides within Sano, whose .276/.368/.538 line at the 2017 All-Star break was eerily similar to Morneau's .298/.372/.528 from 2006 through 2010. And while Sano may be destined to move across the diamond at some point, for now he's the man at third, giving Minnesota the luxury of 30-HR power at both corners.
Prior to Gonzalez's arrival, it wasn't clear exactly what the Twins would do if Sano was hurt or out of sorts. Theoretically Astudillo was an option, though his defensive chops at third are dubious. Some speculated that Schoop could slide over there, given his arm strength, but he hasn't played third base in four years. Adrianza and Torreyes would be woefully inadequate offensively.
So bringing Gonzalez aboard is a big difference-maker here, even bigger than at second base. He has made 93 career starts at third in the majors – more than Astudillo, Schoop, Adrianza and Torreyes combined. He's also probably a better hitter than the lot of them.
Obviously we're all hoping to see the pre-2018 version of Sano, because that's the kind of development that would instantly legitimize the Twins as a contender. But luckily, with Gonzalez around, they won't be sabotaged if Sano doesn't quickly return to form.
The lost weight and leaner physique are good to see, but it's discipline at another dish that will dictate Sano's value. By the end of 2018, his once-admirable plate approach had deteriorated to the point of ruin. After returning from his mid-season minor-league banishment, Sano was barely an improvement over the whiffing mess that had earned a demotion.
He was mired in a September slump when he inflamed his surgically repaired left leg on a slide in Houston. He sat out two weeks, then played one game, striking out four times, and didn't play again.
"Little bit of a puzzle we haven’t been able to solve yet," said a befuddled Paul Molitor after another set of MRIs came back clean on the hobbled third baseman near season's end. His leg has been a recurring source of mystery for the Twins, who also dubbed him fit to play at the end of 2017 (then too, it was quickly apparent he wasn't).
That's all a bit ominous. Granted, the Twins mostly overhauled their medical staff, but this leg ailment is a tricky animal for any trainer to contend with. Both team and player have seemingly underestimated its severity time and again, leading to repeated setbacks. And we all know that if a hitter doesn't have his lower half, he doesn't have much, which is how a guy with Miguel Sano's ability puts up a .228/.320/.417 slash line in 99 games between the majors and Triple-A in his age-25 season.
The same thing we said about Schoop at second, though, applies here as well: The rebounding-after-injury narrative is a tidy one, but it doesn't always play out that way. And in this case, that narrative ignores the fact that we haven't seen sustained dominance from Sano since the early weeks of the 2017 campaign, which is suddenly a long time ago. His need for a recalibration at the plate precedes and supersedes his leg ailment.
The unpleasant fact is that pitchers have increasingly found ways to defuse this explosive threat. And our hopes that a slimmer Sano, with renewed focus, will blow up once again are just that. Now, his lacerated heel delays the process of getting back up to speed in time for March 28th, potentially setting him up to open on the Injured List.
So, thank goodness for Marwin. But the real issues at third base emerge as you look down the line. There's no position in the Twins system with less depth at present. The top prospects I've listed (Miranda and Severino) are raw and very far away. In fact the teenaged Severino hasn't even played any third base yet, though it's believed he'll outgrow the middle infield and that seems a logical destination.
Even if things go well with Sano, he'll probably have to move off third at some point. Who will succeed him – beyond Gonzalez in a near-term scenario – is anyone's guess at this point.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All eyes are on Sano. It's been a long time since we've seen him on top of his game but he's certainly young enough – and seemingly driven enough – to find that gear once again. And if he can, there's MVP-caliber potential in that strong, sturdy, incredibly powerful frame.
The Twins are very much invested in him being that player again, or some semblance, because depth at the position is less than stellar. Gonzalez provides an interstitial backup plan, but the franchise lacks a substantive roadmap beyond those two. Maybe a year from now it won't seem like so much of a problem.
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