FORT MYERS, FLA. – Each morning at spring training, Miguel Sano hits the field with all the gear he needs to hone his skills as a third baseman.
Like his glove, his sunglasses, his wristbands — and his Hall of Famer.
Paul Molitor hasn’t been far from Sano for most of camp, lending his expansive knowledge of the finer points of being a third baseman.
“If he’s playing over here, I’m going to be standing near him, watching him and trying to get in his ear about why he was, where he was at and what he was thinking of on this particular play,’’ said Molitor, a baserunning and infield coordinator at camp. “He has a great attitude about it. He’s always gracious about receiving the info. He’s very coachable.’’
The Twins have asked Molitor to help Sano because they could solve their third base problem for years if they can keep his big power bat at the hot corner. Sano was signed to a $3.15 million contract in 2009, the most ever for a Latin position player at the time. Since then, they’ve watched him continue to grow — he added 1 ½ inches over the past year and is now 6 feet, 4 inches. They also watched him commit 42 errors last season while at Class A Beloit.
While a 6-4, 240-pounder seems destined for the outfield — if not the NFL — the Twins are not ready to pull Sano off third base just yet. They feel he has the hands, agility and arm to play the position, despite his growth spurt. And last season was Sano’s first full season at third, giving the Twins a wait-and-see attitude on his development.
To aid in that development, they have asked Molitor, who played 791 games at third during his career, to get involved.
Sano, 19, could be on the fast track to the majors — as fast as 2014, although 2015 is the realistic goal at present. He batted .258 for Beloit last season but hit 28 homers and drove in 100 runs in 129 games. He walked 80 times, for a .373 on-base percentage, and struck out 114.
The Twins took Sano to Tampa on Thursday to face the Yankees, and he came through with two singles and two above-average plays in the field during a 6-1 victory.
Afterward, Sano was asked about the strides he’s made defensively.
“When I played third base for the first time, I work with Paul Molitor,’’ said Sano, who’s honing his English skills, as well. “I work every day at third base.
“I listen to him and watch him. He tells me about the defense. He says something every time I play third.’’
Sano and Molitor usually are on one of the back fields at the Lee County Sports Complex this spring around 8:30 a.m. on days he’s not playing minor league road sgames.
Signed as a shortstop, Sano played that position in 2010 as a minor leaguer then split time between short and third in 2011 while in rookie ball at Elizabethton, Tenn. The move to third was completed last season, and Sano immediately realized how much faster things happen at third as opposed to shortstop.
A good third baseman has to be composed and collected as rocket-line drives come his way. He also has to pounce on slow rollers and bunts like a linebacker chasing a fumble. And moving from short can be a challenge.
“You’re going from short, which is a run-and-catch position, to third, which is a step-and-catch position,’’ said former Twin Ron Coomer, who was a shortstop in high school before moving to third. “It’s a weird transition.’’
Throw Sano’s imposing frame into this mix, and it’s easy to wonder if he can remain a third baseman. Brad Steil, the Twins director of minor league operations, said Sano’s defense was better the second half of last season and noticed more improvement this spring. The development must continue.
“He’s a big boy, so we have to do what we can to try to help him to be ready to move,’’ Molitor said. “His set-ups are something that we really tried to improve. He’s got massive legs, and he has a tendency to get real low. When he gets real low, his head moves, his body moves and he doesn’t read the ball real well. We’re trying to get him to simplify some things to try to get him to catch the ball.’’
Big error totals are common for prospects. Adrian Beltre, at age 18, committed 37 in 1997 in high Class A. Aramis Ramirez, at 19, committed 39 errors that same year at high A. Scott Rolen — listed at 6-4 and 245 — committed 38 errors at low-A at age 19.
Many errors come from trying to make plays that shouldn’t be attempted. Footwork and positioning are factors, as well. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said the club is not entertaining any thoughts of moving Sano in his second full season of playing third base exclusively.
“I think we are getting ahead of ourselves thinking that this is going to be short-term situation,’’ Ryan said. “He’s got a lot of things that have to go right. He certainly has a wealth of talent, and he’s got all those attributes that you’re thinking about as a third baseman.
“But he had a lot of errors, too many errors. He’s just a kid. Usually the development stage of most players is about five years.’’
Sano was thrilled to get the call Wednesday night that he was going to join the Twins in Tampa against the Yankees.
Meanwhile, Molitor gave Twins manager Ron Gardenhire a heads-up before the team departed for Tampa.
“You gotta watch his set-up,’’ Molitor told Gardenhire.
Sano booted grounders during pregame work. He also banged home runs off the scoreboard in left field and the batter’s eye in center field of Legends Field. He impressed many with his bat speed.
Sano singled on the first pitch thrown to him in the second inning and ended up going 2-for-5 at the plate. Defensively, he had one putout and four assists. His best play came in the seventh inning when he went to his right and backhanded a short-hop down the line. He then threw across his body and deliberately one-hopped the throw to first for the out.
“I know Paul Molitor and him and have been really getting after it and have been working on his approach and his stance on getting reads,’’ Gardenhire said. “Obviously it has been working pretty well, because he got great jumps on the ball. He made a hell of a backhand play down the line.’’
More plays like that give the Twins hope that one of the top power-hitting prospects in baseball can remain a third baseman.
“We know his bat is on a pretty fast track, but we want to know if third base is something he can handle,’’ Molitor said. “It’s just a matter of him being consistent. His positioning needs work. He’s not sure where to be all the time, so that is kind of a constant thing.’’
Sano, for his part, prefers to remain a third baseman.
“My defense, I have been working hard, is better,’’ he said. “I keep trying.’’
With a little help from his Hall of Famer.