It was a sunny day in Venezuela, but no baseball games were being played. The country was on a general strike, leaving the best young players in the land to do little more than take batting practice.
This was in the winter of 2002-03. I was touring the Twins’ Latin American academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela with Bill Smith, then a team vice president. A tall, lean, hitter was lashing line drives all over the diamond. Smith pointed and said, “I thought we had him.’’
The subject of the conversation was Miguel Cabrera. Three years previously, the Twins thought they had him signed to a contract, but then-owner Carl Pohlad nixed the deal. At that time, Pohlad was refusing to spend money to try to compete because of baseball’s competitive imbalance and his inability to procure a new ballpark.
Cabrera would become one of the greatest hitters of his generation, and an occasional headache to his employers.
About 10 years after losing Cabrera, Smith and the Twins pursued another potential Latin American superstar, Miguel Sano. Despite questions about Sano’s age, they signed him for $3.15 million, then a record for a Latin American position-playing prospect not from Cuba.
They hoped Sano would become a latter-day version of Cabrera. Sano, like Cabrera, is a power hitter who can play either corner infield position but is likely to end his career as a combination first baseman and DH. Sano has tried to play right field; Cabrera started his big-league career as a left fielder.
Sano has, for months at a time, justified the comparison to Cabrera as a hitter, displaying power, the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field and a hitting intelligence beyond his years. He also has caused the occasional headache for his employer.
As he begins his fourth season with the Twins, Sano has yet to fulfill his promise. He has yet to hit 30 home runs, drive in 80 runs or play in 120 games in a season. This winter, a photographer took to Twitter to accuse him of assault. Last summer, after a foul ball caused a stress reaction in his left leg, sources revealed that he weighed 285 pounds, and sometimes more than that, placing him 25-30 pounds over his listed playing weight. The same sources have said this winter and spring that his weight reached 295-300 pounds as he tried to rehabilitate his injury.
Cabrera, too, has fought weight issues, and he was investigated for domestic assault around the time he played in a Game 163 loss for the Tigers at the Metrodome in 2009.
As a hitter, he still represents what Sano could, or perhaps should, become. Cabrera has been remarkably durable, playing in 150 or more games in 11 seasons, and 148 games in another. He has hit 462 home runs and his career OPS (combined slugging and on-base percentages) is a remarkable .948.
Sano will turn 25 in May. He is no longer a young prospect. He and Byron Buxton are supposed to be the superstars who make the Twins a threat to win a World Series, but Sano’s career OPS is .844, not ideal for a player who combines power and patience.
Cabrera was known for poor eating habits when he played for the Marlins, but nothing — not diet, body type or any alleged off-the-field problems — has kept him from producing. Sano’s weight may not allow him to stay at third base much longer, even though he has the hands, arm and agility to play the position proficiently.
As the Twins prepare for their 2018 season opener, Sano remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma within a very large body.
He has emulated Cabrera’s faults.
Can he emulate Cabrera’s strengths?