Twins 2021 Position Analysis: First Base
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Miguel Sanó
Likely Backup: Willians Astudillo
Depth: Brent Rooker, Mitch Garver
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Aaron Sabato
Miguel Sanó is, by all accounts, firing up at spring camp with a fully clean slate. That's not something that could have been said about him last summer (late start due to COVID-19), or in 2019 (came to Fort Myers with heel laceration that required surgery), or in 2018 (under league investigation for assault allegations).
This year Sanó appears to be in a good place both physically and mentally, which is welcome news for him at a crux point of his career. Despite plainly having all the talent and ability in the world, Sanó will turn 28 in May and has yet to put together a complete season in the majors.
On the bright side, the closest he's come was in the last normal MLB season, 2019: Sanó joined the team late and made up for lost time by slashing .247/.346/.576 with 34 home runs and 79 RBIs in just 105 games. Extrapolate that over a full season and you're talking about 50-HR, 100+ RBI production that naturally tends to generate MVP steam.
It was a recipe that helped Justin Morneau take home the award 15 years ago with a 34-HR, 130-RBI season in which he bolstered his case with timely hitting and sharp defense at first base. These are both areas where Sanó has shown he can follow suit.
Throughout his career, Sanó has routinely risen to the occasion in run-producing opportunities. In 2019 he slugged .649 with runners on base, and last year – even amidst his overall struggles – he posted an .868 OPS with RISP, 100 points higher than his overall mark.
Defensively, 2020 was a process and learning experience for Sanó as he adapted to a new full-time position. But he took to it pretty well, with his size and athleticism shining as clear assets at first base. He visibly improved over the course of three months, and the flaws that occasionally cropped up – i.e. positioning and decision-making – seem mostly correctable.
Incidentally, when asked by reporters about examples he's following to model his defensive skills at first base, the first two names Sanó shared were Morneau and Joe Mauer – the last two Twins MVPs and both players who transitioned from another natural position (catcher). Sanó also named three-time MVP and two-time Gold Glover Albert Pujols.
Sanó has all the tools to be an elite first baseman of the traditional mold – a dominant and intimidating offensive force who is above-average with the glove. He hits the ball as hard as anyone in the major leagues, with exit velocities and barrel rates that consistently rank at the very top of the scale. His rare, generational raw power can make him a truly special player if he stays healthy and overcomes the shortcomings that have held him back from a sustained breakthrough.
Sanó is a huge man with a ferociously violent swing, which enables him to produce such thunderous contact when he connects. That swing also can very easily get thrown out of whack and caught up in bad habits, making Sanó extremely prone to slumps and strikeouts. We saw this issue sabotage a 2020 season that was heading in a promising direction.
Shaking off a slow start, the first baseman got on a roll in mid-August. Over an admittedly hand-picked one-month span, from August 11th through September 10th, Sanó slashed .304/.407/.641 with seven home runs and 10 doubles in 27 games, carrying the load at times for a lineup that perpetually failed to click.
From that point forward, however, it was Sanó who perpetually failed to click. In 13 games following September 10th, he hit .102/.120/.286 with an egregious 25-to-1 K/BB ratio in 50 plate appearances, looking as bad at the plate as we've ever seen him. The slump spilled over into the playoffs where he went 1-for-7 against Houston, following a 1-for-12 showing against New York in 2019.
Streakiness will always inherently be a part of Sanó's game, and you accept it when the good healthily outweighs the bad, like in 2019. But by the end of 2020 his wayward swing mechanics and contact woes felt more out of hand than ever.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You don't have to squint hard to see the true potential of Sanó coming to fruition, even after all the trials and setbacks up to this point. He's an imposing figure in the box. As authoritatively as he hits the ball, and as much as he lifts it, he'll be an absolute force so long as he can make contact with any frequency.
It's far from a given that'll happen, especially when you consider the lack of overall forward progress since Sanó debuted in the majors some six years ago. Last season he posted his highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate as a big-leaguer. But in 2019 he really seemed to be finding his stride, and all players deserve some benefit of the doubt as far as 2020 is concerned.
Sanó has two years at most to figure things out and turn the corner as a Twin. He's under contract for $11 million this season and $9.25 million in 2022, after which Minnesota holds a $14 million team option. Alex Kirilloff seems likely to end up at first base and if he doesn't, 2020 first-rounder Aaron Sabato could be on a fast track toward the majors.
The Twins are conspicuously lacking in immediate depth at first base, so it'll be interesting to see how Rocco Baldelli handles any short-term absence from Sanó early in the season. Luis Arráez has no real experience at first base (and seems an odd fit there with his size and skill set). Jake Cave hasn't played first, nor has Ryan Jeffers.
My assumption is that Willians Astudillo or Brent Rooker – or whoever else latches onto the final bench spot – will be Sanó's day-to-day backup, with Kirilloff in line to replace him during any prolonged absence.
For a more extensive look at the long-term outlook, check out Cody Christie's future position analysis for first base.
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