FORT MYERS, FLA. – The three men sat down at a table next to the water on the elegant beach restaurant’s huge outdoor patio. A waiter brought them plates full of freshly caught fish, cooked on a bed of rice and vegetables, and the diners dug in.
As Miguel Sano and Fred Guerrero, the Twins scout who signed Sano a decade ago in this very same restaurant, listened between bites of dinner, Rocco Baldelli began voicing the message he had come all the way to the Dominican Republic to deliver.
But Baldelli’s words didn’t matter. Just being there was the message.
“I was very happy he came to see me,” Sano said. “He wants me to have a good year. It’s important.”
Perhaps no factor is more important to the 2019 Twins and their new manager than the revival of Sano’s career, unless it’s the revival of Byron Buxton’s. Those two teammates — the large, loud slugger from the Caribbean and the lithe, quiet speedster from rural Georgia — have been paired in fans’ minds for seven years, since Buxton was drafted with the second overall pick in 2012. Buxton and Sano, Sano and Buxton … they have been linked by their obvious, outsized baseball talent and central role in the team’s future, but also by their persistent injuries and exasperating inconsistency.
“I got here in 2013, when those guys were probably still in [Class] A ball, and people were already talking about them as the centerpiece of our future,” Kyle Gibson said. “When you’ve got big talent like those guys, people want you to turn into stars right now, this minute, instead of giving them room and time to grow. But that’s not how this works.”
They are both only 25 and neither has yet reached 400 major league games. Yet it sometimes feels like they are already icons of a fading era, written off by impatient fans and about as likely to be heading toward the door as toward the greatness long predicted for them. Sano has hit some mammoth home runs, but he’s also prone to chasing pitches, producing flurries of strikeouts. Buxton is a transformative outfielder and record-setting baserunner, but he has yet to become comfortable with a swing and find his confidence at the plate.
Only 17 short months ago, that duo completed a season that seemingly established them as Minnesota fixtures, Sano having bashed his way to an All-Star Game, Buxton having earned the Rawlings Platinum Glove as the best fielder in the AL. They were Killebrew and Oliva, or if you prefer, Puckett and Hrbek — superstars who would join forces to lead the Twins to division titles, league championships, and even World Series glory.
But now? “2019 is going to be a defining season for both these guys. They’re at a crossroads in their careers,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “We believe they are going to vault forward, and we want to do everything we can to help them.”
Which is why, a week before Christmas and only two months after being hired as the youngest manager in Twins history, Baldelli flew to Atlanta to dine with Buxton, and then to the Dominican Republic to befriend Sano. Baldelli reached nearly every player on the 40-man roster by phone during the offseason, introducing himself and offering reassurance about the upcoming training camp. But Buxton and Sano? He decided to handle with care.
“Rocco felt, and we felt, that those were two relationships that were going to be vital to the future success of the organization,” Levine said. “And we also viewed those two relationships as needing some rehabilitation, just from what had transpired in 2018.”
Last season was a nightmare of trauma, both physical and psychic. Sano came to training camp noticeably heavier after leg surgery prevented an offseason workout program. He was also under the cloud of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault, though MLB never corroborated the accusation or ordered punishment.
He was batting .213 when he strained a hamstring, sidelining him for nearly all of May, and by mid-June the Twins had seen enough. With his cooperation, they sent him to the Twins’ Florida base in Fort Myers, where he spent every day working on conditioning and occasional nights playing for the Class A Miracle. When he returned, a knee injury in September basically ended his season, with a .199 average serving as a glaring reflection of his descent.
Buxton’s injuries were just as debilitating: After an April 12 game in which his batting average rose to .195, he began suffering from migraine headaches, a recurring and incapacitating problem. When the pain subsided after a week, Buxton played in a rehab game with Fort Myers, where he fouled a ball off his left foot, breaking the big toe. After missing three more weeks, he tried to return, though the fracture was not fully healed, and he was on the disabled list again before May ended. A strained wrist in July compounded his problems, and the team chose not to recall him to the majors when Rochester’s season ended.
“I just wrote off last year as a lost year. Everything that happened, none of it matters anymore,” Buxton said. “It didn’t really happen, that’s the way I look at it.”
The Twins wish they could. The numbers, so encouraging a year earlier, quantified what the Twins lost on the field: After combining for 44 homers and 128 RBI in 2017, Sano produced 13 homers and 41 RBI during his lost season, and Buxton no homers and four RBI in only 28 games. Not coincidentally, the Twins tumbled from surprise wild-card playoff entrants in 2017 to a 78-84 also-ran in 2018, a season that cost Paul Molitor his job as manager.
The September snub also left some hard feelings.
“It kind of didn’t go over well,” Buxton said of his summer in exile, and Derek Falvey, Twins chief baseball officer, contacted him frequently to mend the relationship. Falvey and Levine also monitored Sano’s offseason workout program, designed to bolster his conditioning and subtract some weight.
Baldelli took it from there.
“These are both guys who probably appreciated a conversation. A chance to sit down. Neither had the easiest year, and I wanted to make sure that they felt good about everything that was going on around them,” Baldelli said. “Until you actually get a chance to listen to what they have to say, you’re not going to really know that.”
Baldelli arranged to fly from his Rhode Island home to Atlanta to meet Buxton — coincidentally on Dec. 18, Buxton’s 25th birthday. “I felt bad about that after the fact, but he didn’t want to be the one to tell me,” Baldelli said.
The player brought his 5-year-old son, Brixton, to the meeting, which began at an indoor batting cage north of the city. Buxton went through his normal hitting workout while the manager observed him, and then the three of them went to a nearby cafe to talk.
Buxton wasn’t just impressed, he was motivated.“He was very direct. He put me at ease — ‘Just play your game, give 100 percent and you’ll be fine.’ He made me realize how important I can be to this team’s success,” Buxton said. “When he left, I was wishing spring training would start the next day. He kind of pumped me up to get things going.”
Baldelli flew on to the Dominican Republic, where he met Sano and Guerrero at a place that holds great meaning for the slugger: Neptune’s, the resort restaurant where Sano put his signature on a $3.15 million contract, at the time the biggest for an international free agent in Twins history, in October 2009. The seafood was great, Baldelli said, and the symbolism was hard to miss: Let’s recapture that limitless potential you possessed back then.
“Both of these men have battled varying adversity, but none like what they faced last year. We’re not defined by the adversity itself, but by how we respond to it,” Levine said. “So far, there are a lot of signs that both men have responded very well. Miguel has clearly taken it to heart, down to the changing of his physical appearance. Both guys are walking through the front door with huge smiles on their faces, which is energizing to their teammates and hopefully a harbinger of positive things to come.”
Baseball’s relentless calendar, however, makes this year crucial to both — and to their team. The Twins have delayed an aggressive pursuit of what they hope will be pieces to a long-term championship contender, partly since they cannot be sure the cornerstones are in place. If 2019 is a repeat of 2018, the Twins could be forced to move on.
“We’ve been in that situation for the past couple of years now. I mean, OK, what outfielder are you going to go get to put in front of Buxton, [Max] Kepler and [Eddie] Rosario? No, no,” said Gibson, the team’s most senior player. “What infielder are you going to put in front of Sano? No. You’ve got players with incredible, rare abilities and you’ve got to let that play out. Sometimes you get backed into a corner if it doesn’t work out. But as long as those guys know that everyone in here has their back and everyone in here has the confidence that they will be the players we know they can be, you have to be excited about where they’re going to take us.”