FORT MYERS, FLA. – Miguel Sano had packed on some pounds in the three months that he spent as the Twins’ successful designated hitter as a rookie in 2015. Terry Ryan’s front office decided that Miguel would be better served playing in the field.
Trevor Plouffe was coming off a season when he led the Twins with 86 RBI and was at third base, and Joe Mauer at first, causing the dramatic (and misplaced) decision to start the 2016 season with Miguel in right field.
The Twins asked Miguel to lose some weight over the winter and he gained weight, instead. I wrote a column in late March 2016 sounding the alarm about potential issues if Sano continued to lose control of his conditioning.
The Twins were unwilling to share specifics, but the rumor was that Miguel was close to 280 pounds at the start of spring training. Manager Paul Molitor had him in for a few office visits.
“He gives me the big smile and says ‘Don’t worry, Papi, it’s good,’"’ Molitor said. “We’re trying to get him focused on the fact that once you do things to reach the big leagues, you have to do the things to remain successful and stay here.’’
There have been times over the three seasons that followed when Sano impressed with his ability to crush a baseball. He was an All-Star in 2017, after he reached the break with 21 home runs and 62 RBI.
There was never a time in those three seasons – and this is strictly my view – to be convinced that Miguel had embraced the words of Molitor, the words of a Hall of Famer who was slashing 225 hits in the year he turned 40, on the need to focus on what it would take to maximize his talents.
He was minimizing those, instead – losing his conditioning and losing his pitch recognition, check-swinging, missing, chasing, at alarming rates.
Last month, on Feb. 17, Twins position players were scheduled to report. Sano was in the clubhouse early on that Sunday morning.
His face was different; his frame was different; his confidence was different when he talked with reporters for 10 minutes.
Again, personal view, this was the most-prepared Miguel had looked to play baseball since arriving as a rookie on July 2, 2015.
Rod Carew was on his annual visit to Twins’ camp and had talked with Sano that morning. What did Sir Rodney think?
“He looks good; even better, Miguel told me that he found peace this winter,’’ Carew said. “I know the feeling. That happened with me.’’
Rodney talked about that for a time, and then we talked about Miguel as a hitter. I offered this opinion: “You hear all the talk about him chasing sliders, but what gets him in trouble is the fastball near the letters. He can’t lay off it and he can’t get to it.’’
Carew gave me a “no-kidding’’ look and said: “Not many hitters can, as hard as pitchers are throwing today. I couldn’t hit that pitch when Nolan Ryan was throwing. That’s why I started hitting out of a crouch.
“Nolan would strike me out all the time. Then, I started crouching, taking away that pitch. He would scream at me, ‘Stand up, hit like you’re supposed to.’
“Miguel’s not going to hit from a crouch, but he can do a better job of laying off 96 [mph] at the letters.’’
There were other optimistic words about Sano on that morning. And then it became public there was a cut on the back of his right foot. It was suffered in an accident as his winter league team held a civic celebration three days after winning the Dominican Republic playoffs.
The cut turned out to be a horizontal gash in a terrible location for healing. And now, three weeks after that first, positive look at Sano, he is sidelined again long-term. He will turn 26 on May 11 and that might be about the date he’s back in the Twins’ lineup.
Four years ago, the reaction was all negative when that column was written suggesting the Twins should be concerned about Sano in the long-term, if he failed to gain a focus on conditioning – on discipline, in general.
He finally did that this winter. It was obvious seeing Sano on arrival in this camp that he had worked out energetically in this offseason.
The Twins always had been defensive, looking for excuses, avoiding specifics, when talking about Sano in three previous spring trainings – whether they were the Terry Ryan people, or the Derek Falvey people.
It’s different this time. As Falvey and trainer Tony Leo talked about the latest complication with Sano’s wound on Tuesday, there was nothing they wanted to hide about Miguel’s offseason commitment to baseball.
This was bad luck.
And now Sano must maintain the peace and commitment that he found over the winter – as stated to an admired man such as Rod Carew – as he waits to show baseball there is a new Miguel.
For the public or the media to cry that this should be the end of the line for the Twins with Sano is utterly stupid, when there has been a strong hint that he’s at last ready to give himself a shot at maximizing his talent.
(photo of Miguel Sano and Rod Carew by Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune)