Miguel Sano is back. And this time as a third baseman.
The Twins appear ready to do away with the young slugger’s outfield experiment. He started at the hot corner in Friday’s 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Rangers at Target Field, and manager Paul Molitor didn’t sound too eager to use him in right again any time soon.
“I see using him at third base some and designated hitter some,” Molitor said. “If I get into a situation where I have to put him in the outfield, I would consider that. That’s really not my preference right now.
“We’ll just see how it goes. I primarily see him at third base and DH.”
That DH spot is open because the Twins sent Byung Ho Park to Class AAA Rochester to make room on the roster. Park is second on the team with 12 home runs but has struggled mightily of late.
Sano hit only .160 in eight rehab games at Rochester, but Molitor said the quality of at-bats improved in recent games. So the Twins believed Sano was ready to rejoin the team after landing on the disabled list June 1 because of a left hamstring injury. Against the Rangers, Sano went 0-for-3 with a walk, a strikeout and a warning-track flyout to center field in the ninth inning.
The Twins decided to make the 270-pound Sano a right fielder during the offseason. Trevor Plouffe was entrenched at third. They were bringing in Park from South Korea to be the designated hitter and believed Sano, who was signed as a shortstop, could make the transition to the outfield. They also felt that, at 22 years old on Opening Day, Sano was too young to be a full-time DH, like he was last year.
Sano didn’t do much outfield work during the offseason, and it showed during the season. Even when he made plays he looked awkward at times, and he struggled going back on balls. The one thing he did well was throw.
Sano started at third April 23, the first of five major league appearances there this season. He has always maintained that he will do what the club asks of him, but he clearly enjoys third base more than the outfield.
It showed in the sixth inning Friday, when Sano charged a soft tapper by Adrian Beltre, made a barehanded pickup and zipped a throw to first for the out.
Sano’s arrival meant someone else’s departure, and the Twins chose to send out Park in hopes the struggling slugger can rediscover his stroke. Park was batting .257 on May 15 but proceeded to hit .127 with a .245 slugging percentage over his next 31 games. That pulled his season average down to .191.
Molitor said Park lost his confidence as he tried to adjust to major league pitchers. He believes Park can hit in this league but has to take a step back and find his swing.
“He tried to acclimate himself not only to our team and, two, our culture,” Molitor said. “It just has been rough. I think it has been really been tough on him, mentally, to deal with some of the frustration that came, particularly over the past three, four weeks.
“While he was understanding and certainly accepting of the situation, he’s going to have to go down there and lessen the burden a little bit and try to get back to where he took pleasure in playing the game.”
The Twins paid a $12.85 million posting fee for the rights to the 29-year-old Park, then signed him to a four-year, $12 million deal Dec. 1. So far, there has been little payoff for their investment. Park was informed of the move Friday morning and left for Rochester before he could be reached for comment.
With Park out, Sano and Plouffe can split time between third base and DH. Sano is a clear winner in this new arrangement, as he is out of the outfield. Sano’s defensive rating of minus-4.3 was 19th in baseball among players with at least 300 innings in right field. But Twins General Manager Terry Ryan argued that Sano wasn’t a total wreck as an outfielder.
“For me, his defense in right field was not an issue,” Ryan said. “It was adequate. It wasn’t great. No one is admitting that. It was adequate.”
Another winner is rookie Max Kepler, who has taken over in right field and is batting .248 with three home runs and 15 RBI. Kepler, one of the organization’s top prospects, now gets to show that he can be the long-term solution at the position.
“He gives us a pretty good at-bat,” Ryan said. “He hangs in well against lefties. He can really run, and his defense has been pretty good.”
In fact, the only time Sano might appear in right is when Kepler needs a day off or a tough lefthander is on the mound.
“There are plenty of at-bats at those positions for all those guys to play,” Ryan said.