The stakes could not be higher. Twins officials openly say so themselves: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano will overcome their recent woes and become consistent standouts — or the whole organization is back to square one.
Against that backdrop, the Twins have spent long stretches this season looking like a car missing two wheels, even as they gained speed before the All-Star break.
Buxton and Sano, the organization’s prized cornerstones, both were healthy enough to play for the Twins during the team’s recent surge, but Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey kept them in the minors to heal their swings and their psyches. In some ways, those projects have become just as important as the 2018 season itself.
“We certainly aren’t going to be playoff-bound and have any chance to really win if Buxton and Sano aren’t pillars of our lineup,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president of player personnel. “What are we going to do, trade them? They have no value right now. We have to get them right.”
Where are they now? Buxton, 24, is on the disabled list at Class AAA Rochester, recovering from left wrist inflammation. Sano, 25, is at Class A Fort Myers, where he just returned after tending to a family matter this week in the Dominican Republic.
With each passing week that these two aren’t thriving in the majors, more people wonder if they’re ever going to live up to their ballyhooed potential.
“I would be much more concerned about Sano than Buxton if I were in Derek Falvey’s shoes,” said Keith Law, an ESPN baseball analyst who ranks the game’s top prospects. “Because of [Sano’s] size, the bat always has to be there. Buxton can have a bad year with the bat and still provide value because he’s Usain Bolt and plays the heck out of center.”
As it stands, the Twins will return from the All-Star break Friday without either player, and with no spoken timetable for their big-league returns.
“Our goal has never been to get them right back, so they can survive or keep their heads above water,” Falvey said. “Our goal has been to make them impact players.”
Major revisions in minors
Before injuring his wrist, Buxton had begun showing tangible signs of progress for Rochester. With his fractured left big toe finally healed, he opened July by batting .281 with an .830 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in eight games in Class AAA, albeit with nine strikeouts.
“[Buxton] was on his way to being back in the big leagues here quickly, in the short term, probably this month, or soon,” Radcliff said. “There’s no timetable per se, but well ahead of when Miguel was going to show up.”
The Twins called Buxton’s latest injury minor, and he’s eligible to come off the seven-day disabled list Friday. But Radcliff noted how important hands and wrists are for hitting.
“Especially to drive the ball,” Radcliff said. “Maybe he won’t hit those 15 home runs. Maybe they’ll just be singles and doubles. We’ll have to accept that this year.”
Buxton’s minor league mission has been to rediscover his swing and confidence. Sano’s situation is more complex.
Listed on the roster at 6-4 and 272 pounds, he reported to spring training weighing 293 this year after recovering from offseason surgery to insert a rod into his broken left leg. He missed a month because of a hamstring injury and looked like a shell of himself, batting .203 and striking out in two of every five plate appearances.
“I think they did the right thing with Sano,” said former Twins shortstop and current broadcaster Roy Smalley. “It was a shot across the bow, sending him all the way to A-ball to lose weight, get in shape, figure out how to be the kind of player he can be.”
As of early this week, Sano had lost nearly 20 pounds since his demotion, according to people familiar with his conditioning. In 19 games for Fort Myers, Sano has hit .328 with an .895 OPS, though he still has 21 strikeouts in 64 at-bats. Twins manager Paul Molitor said Sano’s next step likely will be Rochester.
Will they flourish or fizzle?
The Twins’ farm system was the envy of the industry in 2014, when Baseball America magazine had Buxton ranked as the sports’ No. 1 prospect; Sano was No. 6.
It’s easy to forget, but both players were flashing their full potential at this time last year. Sano was an All-Star, and Buxton found a summertime groove that led to an 18th-place finish in the American League MVP voting.
What if last year proves to be the high point for Buxton and Sano? What if each settles into a middling career?
“You had Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the  draft, and then with Sano, you got one of the most talented [international] free agents of the last 15 years,” Law said. “I think [if they fizzle], it probably sets you back three years as an organization, somewhere in that 2-4 range.”
Other late-blooming Twins
For encouragement, the Twins can lean on their own history with prospects in their mid-20s.
Kirby Puckett and Brian Dozier didn’t even make their major league debuts until they were 24. Torii Hunter got sent back to Class AAA for a stretch over his 24th birthday before his career took flight.
Buxton won’t turn 25 until December. In the meantime, he’ll keep searching for consistency. He has produced two notable surges in his career — September/October 2016 (when he hit nine homers) and from July 4 onward last season (when he batted .314 in 62 games).
Aside from those stretches, Buxton has been a .192 hitter over the rest of his 215 major league games.
“The one thing that hits me right in the face is that we didn’t have the patience that we should have to get him the necessary [minor league] at-bats before we brought him to the big leagues [in 2015],” Radcliff said. “He was behind the curve. In my mind, he’s been digging out of a hole ever since.”
While Buxton was climbing through the minors, Twins officials threw out comparisons to Rickey Henderson, Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout.
“Is [Buxton] going to be a [sure-fire] Hall of Fame guy? I don’t know, maybe not,” Radcliff said. “But is he going to be a good player, who makes a lot of money, who is well thought of and probably playing in All-Star Games the next 10 years? Yeah, that’s what he’s going to be in my opinion.”
Solving the Sano riddle
Radcliff saw how the prospect hype affected Sano, too, saying, “he’s been touted as a $12 trillion guy over time.” So the highs have been expected, and the lows have cut the third baseman deep.
Falvey said part of Sano’s instructions when he was demoted was to work on becoming a better teammate. Beyond the numbers, the Twins have been encouraged with Sano’s enthusiasm. Even on nights when he’s not in the Fort Myers lineup, he has been seen warming up pitchers between innings and congratulating teammates on the dugout’s top step.
“He’s maturing right before our eyes,” Radcliff said. “We’re still in the early stages of his refinement — Miguel 2.0, or whatever somebody wants to call it. You don’t go down for two days and lose 25 pounds and have your [optimal] cardio — that takes time. But along that journey, you can also repair a lot of other stuff.
“It’s not just weight room and batting cages and stuff. There’s lots of things going on here, and his [agency] is part of it, too. It’s a giant makeover.”
If it works out for Sano and Buxton, especially by later this season, imagine the story. The Twins could use their help.
“I think everybody knows that the [July 31] trade deadline’s coming up,” first baseman Joe Mauer said. “Those would be two great acquisitions.”