Next-gen Twins are beginning to grow up

  • Article by: LA VELLE. NEAL III , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2012 - 11:23 AM

A very intriguing pair of prospects are preparing for their first full season of pro ball.

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Miguel Sano, from the Dominican Republic, is still only 18 years old. The Twins are trying to mold the power hitter into a third baseman.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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FORT MYERS, FLA. - If Twins fans in the Twin Cities need an infusion of hope this summer, they can hop in their cars and drive 315 miles.

That's the distance to Beloit, Wis., the likely summer home for the Twins' best minor league prospects since Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau hit the scene in the mid-2000s.

Third baseman Miguel Sano and second baseman Eddie Rosario are invariably the first names mentioned when the Twins farm system is discussed. The two put on a show in rookie ball last year in Elizabethton, Tenn., and now are taking their talents to Class A Beloit for their first full-season experience.

If they come close to what they did at E-Town, Twins fans might find the drive well worth it. And keep this in mind: One of Beloit's opponents in the Midwest League, Cedar Rapids, is only 275 miles away in Iowa.

"I'm not going to lie to you," the 18-year-old Sano, a native of the Dominican Republic, said through an interpreter. "I don't know what to expect because I've never played in the cold before. [But] I am 100 percent ready to go to Beloit."

There's a chance -- albeit a diminishing one -- that shortstop Levi Michael, the Twins' top pick in last year's draft, will join Sano and Rosario. That would give the Snappers a true infield of the future.

But Michael has the advantage of being a three-year college starter at North Carolina, and he is being ticketed for Class A Fort Myers after impressing the Twins this month in workouts.

Sano's power potential

Several publications list Sano as the Twins' top prospect. Baseball America ranks him as the 18th-best prospect in all of baseball. It's a lofty status for someone with only a half-season of experience. But in 66 games at Elizabethton, Sano batted .292 with 20 homers and 59 RBI.

"The power is unbelievable," said Jim Rantz, Twins longtime director of minor leagues.

The Twins signed Sano as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic for $3.15 million in 2009 after a lengthy process to verify his age. Sano has a boyish face but is filling out like Cam Newton. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, up 19 pounds from last year. The Twins knew he was going to get too big to play shortstop but still had him play there last year to learn the game. Now at third, there are concerns that he could outgrow that position, too, and end up in the outfield or at first base.

The Twins don't want that to happen. Sano has shown good speed and agility as a pro and has a strong arm. He committed 26 errors last year, a huge total in a short season. The Twins say that many of them came from attempting unmakeable plays, which is something they expect him to cut down on with experience.

But the power is legit. How he adjusts to better breaking pitches as he moves up the ladder remains to be seen. He struck out 77 times last season, more than once a game.

"My goal is to cut down on strikeouts," Sano said.

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan is more concerned about Sano's adjustments in the field than at the plate at this stage.

"He's got a skill set that fits beautifully at third base," Ryan said. "If you talk about what a prototypical third baseman is, he has the hands, he certainly has the arm. He's athletic enough. He's got the bat. He's got the power.

"I suspect we'll have to make sure he does not outgrow the position. I don't have any interest in seeing Sano at first or the outfield. He looks like a third baseman and should stay there."

Rosario's position switch

Sano didn't even lead his team in home runs last year. Rosario batted .337 with 21 homers and 60 RBI and shared the Appalachian League player of the year award. Rosario, 20, was considered the best hitting prospect in Puerto Rico when the Twins selected him in the fourth round in 2010.

They hoped he would develop power as he matured, and he has surpassed expectations. He led the league in runs (71), triples (nine), homers, total bases (181) and slugging percentage (.670).

He's a good outfielder with a solid arm and has the ability to play center field -- but he's no longer an outfielder.

With Joe Benson at Class AAA Rochester, Aaron Hicks at Class AA New Britain and Oswaldo Arcia at Class A Fort Myers, Twins officials believe they are well-stocked in the outfield, so they decided to move Rosario to second base.

The move could be a coup for an organization that has struggled to develop offensive middle infielders. The hope is that Rosario could become the Twins' best offensive second baseman since Chuck Knoblauch in the 1990s.

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor has been working with Rosario on his footwork around the bag during spring training, with occasional assistance from former Twins manager Tom Kelly.

"So far I'm feeling great," Rosario said, also speaking through an interpreter. "The transition is going smooth, and I would like to learn how to play several positions. That way my value will increase."

Rosario's bigger test will come at Beloit. Like Sano, he has never played in cold weather, so the first few weeks might be an adjustment.

And, like Sano, Rosario will have to watch his walk-to-strikeout totals (27 walks and 60 strikeouts in 67 games last year) while facing pitchers with better stuff and command.

"I'll be interested in seeing what Eddie Rosario does at Beloit, moving him to second base," Ryan said. "There aren't many guys who go through the Appalachian League and hit 21 home runs, with how many triples he had."

Other help on the way

The Twins maintain they have quality prospects at every level, although the organization has been ranked everywhere from the middle of the pack to the bottom third in Major League Baseball. Baseball America ranks them 20th.

Sano and Rosario are being counted on to change that perception. And the Twins believes Michael also has a chance to develop into a solid middle infielder.

"He's a guy that stands out when you are starting the drills," Rantz said. "You can tell he's gone through a program."

Michael played while injured for most of his final season at North Carolina. Injuries to his ankle, groin and hip needed time to heal, so last year he did little more than drills during fall instructional league. He is considered a good base stealer and potential table-setter, and he could move up quickly through the farm system.

The Twins have been criticized for lacking talent at AAA and AA, but they believe there is immediate help available when needed. Benson, first baseman Chris Parmelee and shortstop Brian Dozier -- all of whom were at New Britain last season -- have played well in spring training.

Their top pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, will miss the season because of Tommy John elbow surgery. Fellow righthander Alex Wimmers appears to have licked severe control problems of a year ago, and the first-round pick from 2010 is prepared to move quickly through the system.

Although all eyes will be on the Sano and Rosario show at Beloit, Twins officials say fans should not discount the AAA and AA talent.

"Those [top-100] prospect lists are beautiful, especially when you've got a bunch of guys on there," Ryan said. "I'm not sure if Eddie Guardado or Torii Hunter ever appeared on any prospect list, but they were good players for us.

"I'm all for prospect lists, and that's exactly what they are. They give people hope, and they like to read about all the up-and-comers, and we've got a couple on that top 100. I think we have more than what some of you give us credit for."

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