Twins 2020 Position Analysis: First Base
Image courtesy of John David Mercer-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Miguel Sano
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Ehire Adrianza, Mitch Garver
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Brent Rooker
Sano's bat will play just as well at the new position. His 137 wRC+ last year ranked fourth among MLB third baseman (400+ PA) and would've ranked fourth among first basemen. Rebounding in convincing fashion from a tumultuous 2018, Sano blasted 34 homers with 79 RBIs in just 105 games after joining the team in mid-May, entrenching himself as one of the game's most feared sluggers.
Controversy and drama have followed Sano into camp the last two springs – a sexual assault investigation in 2018 and a questionably-treated heel laceration in 2019 – but this year he refreshingly arrives with no added baggage (or bandage). To the contrary: Sano's place with the team is more secure than ever, after the front office committed to him through 2022 with a new deal in January.
For his part, Sano is doing and saying all the right things. With no resistance, he gave up his previous position to facilitate the Donaldson signing – in fact, he played a role in recruiting the star free agent. By all accounts Sano is in phenomenal shape this spring. Rocco Baldelli opined that the 26-year-old "looks like a supreme athlete" and when you look at pictures from Fort Myers, it's hard to disagree.
Obviously, Sano is built to absolutely annihilate baseballs, and he does that. He isn't necessary built to play third base. While his magnificent arm was more than up to the task, Sano's size and movements just didn't lend themselves to the demands of the hot corner, and as a result he rated statistically as one of the league's worst defenders there.
It's easier to see a fit for him at first base, where Sano's lack of mobility is downplayed considerably. At 6-foot-4 he offers a big target for infielders, and he knows how to handle a fast-arriving hotshot or rocket down the line. We have only a limited sample to draw from, given that Sano's played a total of 223 major-league innings at first, but he looks perfectly capable.
Entering his sixth MLB season, with newfound stability and security in the organization, Sano still has much to prove.
He needs to prove he can play first base. Joe Mauer was a Gold Glove caliber defender there before giving way to Cron, who also showed very well with the glove. Sano has a high bar to live up to, and the stakes are also high. Neither of Minnesota's starting middle infielders (Luis Arraez and Jorge Polanco) have particularly strong arms, so the new first baseman could be tested frequently. On the list of foreseeable pain points for a team that is generally very sound in its construction and outlook, this ranks pretty high.
He needs to prove he can avoid falling into vacuous pits at the plate. While he might always be a streaky hitter, the cold spells where Sano whiffs relentlessly over expended periods are tough to stomach – especially when they're poorly timed. Can the Twins count on him to be at his best when they need him? The slugger provided one of the most memorable highlights of 2019, helping vault Minnesota to the playoffs with a grand slam in Cleveland, but mostly disappeared once they reached October; in the ALDS, Sano hit a solo home run but otherwise went 0-for-11 with eight strikeouts.
Most of all, he needs to prove he can stay on the field. The Twins will live with growing pains at first base and occasional slumps at the plate so long as Sano can actually hold up over the course of a season, which would be a first. In his five big-league campaigns, he has never played in more than 116 games. His surgically reconstructed elbow and titanium-infused tibia are proof enough of what his body has been through.
On this front, just like the two cited before it, there is reason for optimism. Sano had no significant durability issues after his late start last year, and importantly, gave no indication that his left leg was still a major concern. It's evident he put in some serious work on himself physically over this past winter. The chances are good that in 2020 we finally get a full season from Sano, and it'll be fascinating to see what kind of production he can put forth if we do.
In the event he has to miss time again, the Twins aren't hurting for depth at first base, although the offensive drop-off would be substantial with present options. Marwin Gonzalez is the top backup, with Ehire Adrianza able to fill in as well. Were Sano to face a lengthier absence, Minnesota would probably need to find a better solution, like shifting Mitch Garver to first or calling up Alex Kirilloff or Brent Rooker.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No one should underestimate the challenges of adapting to a new full-time position. First base might be on the far end of the defensive spectrum, but in the famous words of Ron Washington in Moneyball, it's still incredibly hard.
Sano will grapple with added pressure in his transition, learning on the fly for a club with championship aspirations, while potentially dealing with a higher-than-normal volume of errant or skipped throws.
Having said that, he has all the attributes to quickly become one of the game's top first basemen. He's a huge, powerful guy just entering his prime. The future of first base for the Twins would appear to be in very good hands.
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