FORT MYERS, FLA. – Miguel Sano is genial and polite during interviews, but if you don’t speak Spanish, a conversation with him becomes something like talking on your cellphone while driving through a tunnel. Both sides are willing to converse, but the connection isn’t always clear.
Unless you ask him what his goals are.
“I want to hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs and win a Gold Glove,” Sano said.
While Byron Buxton has become the consensus top prospect in baseball, Sano, a hulking third baseman, is the best Twins prospect on the doorstep of the big leagues. Last year, despite having his average dip dramatically after being promoted to Class AA New Britain, he finished the season with these composite totals: .280 batting average, 38 homers, 103 RBI.
When he takes batting practice on the Twins minor league fields, he is capable of hitting a vehicle driving on Plantation Road beyond the left-field fence. He is capable of clearing the road completely.
While the 6-4, 260-pound Sano will have to improve his pitch selection to make the jump to the majors this summer, the more pressing questions about him regard his fielding. Can he be a big-league third baseman? If so, can Sano, only 20 years old, remain there if, as the Twins suspect, he continues to grow?
“I think he can be a good third baseman,” Twins farm director Brad Steil said. “A lot of people say that he’s going to end up at first because he’s a big guy, but he is a tremendous athlete for someone his size. He certainly has the foot quickness and the agility to be a third baseman.”
Sano made 42 errors in 125 games at third base at Class A Beloit in 2012. Last year, in 120 games at third between Class A Fort Myers and New Britain, he made 23.
“I’m very impressed with his fielding,” said Rob Antony, Twins vice president and assistant general manager. “From 2012 to 2013, he improved greatly. He’s got good hands. His errors come when he doesn’t set his feet for the throw or tries to do too much — dives and knocks down a ball and then tries to throw a guy out when he doesn’t have a chance. He’s a hard worker. He’ll continue to work on it.”
Sano is an arresting sight. Joe Mauer is 6-5 and 230 pounds. When he stands next to Sano, he looks like an undernourished teenager.
This spring, Sano is wearing a specially made Wilson small glove as a training aid. On Sano, the glove looks comically tiny. Imagine Kent Hrbek wearing an oven mitt.
The expectations for Sano are sizable. He could become one of the best sluggers in Twins history. No Twin has hit 40 home runs in a season since Harmon Killebrew — another slugger who began his career at third base — hit 41 in 1970.
The prospect of Sano batting cleanup for the Twins by midsummer had manager Ron Gardenhire laughing about the stereotypes that have been applied to his team. Just because the Twins have struggled to draft or develop pure power hitters and power pitchers doesn’t mean Gardenhire doesn’t want them.
“I’ll take the guy who throws 98, if he gets guys out,” Gardenhire said. “I’ll take the guy who hits 40 home runs, all day long.”
A more accurate stereotype would be that the Twins lack fiery personalities. Sano could change that, too. At Beloit, Fort Myers and New Britain, he has hit long home runs and either taken an inordinate amount of time to round the bases, or taunted the opposing dugout. Twins officials say Sano also takes an inordinate amount of abuse from opposing dugouts.
“If other teams are hooting and hollering at you and buzzing you, I think there’s a time and a place where if you hit one you get to watch it a little bit,” Gardenhire said. “If they’re buzzing balls by your head, you’ve got to have a little fight in you in this game.
“He threw the bat — I watched that play. But if I hit one that far — if I could ever hit one that far — I might do the same thing.”