The Twins’ history of success drafting first basemen in the first round is not great.
In 1991, they selected David McCarty, who hit only 36 home runs in 11 big league seasons and tried to reinvent himself as a pitcher in 2004.
In 1996, they selected Travis Lee, who was declared a free agent when the Twins missed a deadline to offer him a contract.
In 2005, they selected Henry Sanchez 39th overall with a supplemental pick. He failed to advance higher than Class A while battling injuries. He died of cancer in 2017.
On June 10, the Twins spent the 27th overall pick on North Carolina first baseman Aaron Sabato. It will take some time before they know whether they have a power station in Sabato, but they might have snagged the best hitter in the draft.
The righthanded-hitting Sabato has honed his plate discipline, can cover both sides of the plate and can launch prodigious home runs. If you haven’t noticed, the Twins like to hit a lot of home runs. They feel his plate discipline will lead him to the majors.
“I could tell doing Zoom meetings and predraft meetings … [how] certain hitting [coaches] think and how they go about their approaches,” Sabato said, “and I knew when I had the meeting with the Twins, we were just kind of on the same page of how I worked and everything that I did mentally and my thought process. They loved the way that I talked about it and studied the game of baseball and things like that, and I could tell we kind of hit it off in that sense [and] how I fit in.”
The combination of brains and brawn could be a dangerous one for pitchers. Johnny Montanez, Sabato’s high school coach at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn., saw it up front. Mike Fox, the longtime Tar Heels coach, saw it, too.
So far, all the Twins have are numbers, scouting reports and a Zoom meeting to go on. But’s it was enough evidence for them to sign him for a $2.75 million bonus.
Moving right along
Sabato batted seventh and eighth in the order as a freshman under Montanez, transformed his body as a sophomore then dominated his junior and senior years.
“He started buying into the weight room and the weight room program,” Montanez said. “Buying into coming in early and leaving late. He was exceptional at evaluating his process. He was exceptional beyond his time as a freshman to understand what a quality at-bat is over looking to only get hits. That developed into his plate discipline.”
Sabato, playing shortstop, hit .560 his senior year for the Bruins with 14 home runs in 22 games.
“Senior year, no one would pitch to him,” Montanez said, “and the fools who did got hurt.”
The plate discipline thing was a running constant as Sabato moved from high school to college. He played just 64 games for the Tar Heels in two seasons but batted .343 with 18 home runs and 63 RBI. He posted a .453 on-base percentage and .696 slugging percentage. The COVID-19 virus limited his 2020 season to 19 games, but he hit seven home runs and walked 22 times while striking out 16 times. He hit six home runs over his final six games.
In one of those games, he went deep twice against Notre Dame. The next day, the Fighting Irish walked him four times.
The day Sabato arrived at North Carolina, Fox saw a teenager who was physically mature who already had a reputation for providing big power. In a very short time, Sabato proved he studied the game just as vigorously.
“I never really know with a kid until they get here,” said Fox, who leads all active college head coaches with 1,475 wins. “Obviously you’re hoping for every recruit, but until they actually get on campus and learn to live on their own, get on the field against high-quality competition with the coaches watching, you just never know.
“But it didn’t take as long with him.”
Sabato has been compared to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who crushed 53 homers as a rookie last season. Just don’t mention Alonso around Fox.
“Pete Alonso was in our camp as a junior in high school,” Fox said. “And he wanted to come to North Carolina, we thought. And we let him slip away and he goes to Florida. I cringe when I hear his name. My gosh, we could have had him.
“I’ve been coaching about 40 years, about 36 or 37 in college. I’ve never coached a righthanded hitter like Aaron Sabato who has the power from foul pole to foul pole like he does.”
Sabato is not likely to be in the Twins’ pool of up to 60 players who will report to Target Field this week as the MLB season resumes, so he’ll have to train away from the eyes of the team for the next three months.
The pandemic forced teams to adjust as they prepared for the draft. The Twins held a series of Zoom conferences with prospective picks such as Sabato. There, the scouting and development departments had their one shot to get an idea of what drives Sabato.
And they liked what they heard. The organization felt it could draft this particular first baseman with conviction.
“He’s a really quality kid,” President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said. “He knows hitting about as well as any draftee I’ve been around in terms of understanding approach, understanding what he needs to do at the plate. Hopefully, we can get him playing at some point with us here soon.”