CLEVELAND – Paul Molitor wouldn’t rule out Thursday sending cleanup hitter Miguel Sano to Class AAA Rochester when Trevor Plouffe’s rehab assignment ends next week, and the Twins manager hinted that the reason isn’t entirely because of his month-long hitting slump and inconsistent fielding.
“Young players get to the big leagues and they either subconsciously or their agents or someone is telling them [that] they’ve got everything figured out, go enjoy the life,” Molitor said. “It’s contrary to what’s real.”
Sano’s willingness to work on his game has become an increasingly urgent topic around the team, and likely played a role in Molitor’s decision to bench him every other day last week, three games in all. Sano has only five hits in his past 33 at-bats (.152) along with 16 strikeouts, and he has committed 12 errors, including one in Thursday’s 9-2 loss to Cleveland, since being returned to third base at the beginning of July.
He’s also made a handful of costly baserunning errors, including getting caught in a rundown between second and third base Wednesday night with two outs.
Yet it’s not really his play on the field that seems to have the Twins most concerned about the 23-year-old slugger. Hitting coach Tom Brunansky, interviewed this week on 1500 ESPN, said Sano needs to work on “commitment to his craft. … He needs to commit to be better. I’m not talking about offensively or defensively [but] overall — when you get to be that talented, you’ve got to match that talent with the work ethic.”
Molitor said “that’s a fair statement by Bruno,” though the manager emphasized that it’s not just Sano who has had difficulty making a transition to the major leagues.
Still, he said, “young players need to keep their focus on how they got here and why they’re here and what they need to do to stay here,” Molitor said. “Miggy as a young man is still trying to balance that, where he understands this is a huge priority for him, it’s a huge responsibility. And [he should] just try to minimize things that can interfere with drawing out the skills that you have.”
If Molitor’s intention was to get Sano’s attention, it may have worked already. Sano, who doubled and walked twice in Thursday’s loss, worked out immediately after the game, then talked about how hard he’s been trying to improve all parts of his game.
“I’ve been working every day really hard with Gino [coach Gene Glynn]. A little more I do every day,” Sano said.
And at the plate? “The first couple of days I was really struggling, striking out. I’ve been working in the cage with Brunansky and Rudy [Hernandez, the assistant hitting coach], and I try to keep in my mind what they teach me. I try to put the ball more in play, try to see more pitches, and stay inside the ball and hit up the middle.”
Does he worry that he might soon be headed to Rochester? “No, the manager has a decision for everybody, and the GM. I don’t know what decision they’ll make, so I need to play my game and don’t worry about the [front] office.”
Sano finished third in AL rookie of the year balloting last season, when he broke in by slugging 18 home runs in 80 games, mostly serving as DH. With the addition of Byung Ho Park this year, he was shifted to right field during spring training, but the experiment ended when he missed a month with a hamstring injury and Max Kepler blossomed in his absence. Sano has made several impressive plays at third base, but he’s become error-prone, too, and his strikeouts have soared to MLB-record levels.
Molitor praised Sano’s efforts at improving his fielding, but several Twins sources said he also skipped early batting practice on Monday. That’s the sort of thing, especially as the quality of his play has wavered, that appears to have Sano in danger of a temporary demotion.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations this year. I think he’s trying to make the changes he needs to make, to where he can walk out of here every day saying he did what he could that day to become a better player,” Molitor said. “And it doesn’t happen every day.”
A demotion might not happen, either, but the manager said the decision “is looming” as Plouffe returns to health. A big weekend in Tampa Bay, or at least a renewed show of effort at refining his game, might cause Molitor and interim General Manager Rob Antony to consider other options.
But “you can look at the roster and see that there’s been performance [by other players and] there’s limited people that you actually can really consider [to demote],” Molitor said. Kennys Vargas would seem to be the likeliest candidate, though his 1.086 OPS in the month he’s been in the majors far outstrips Sano’s .776 OPS for the season.
So the decision will remain pending over the next few days.
“A lot of times you gather information, as one of those decisions comes closer, that makes things become more clear,” Molitor said. “Whether that clears itself up on its own by the time we get out of Tampa or not, I’m going to be open to doing the right thing.”