FORT MYERS, FLA. – Miguel Sano is about to become a full-time baseball player at his fourth position since becoming a professional in 2009.
His favorite position: “Third base,” he said.
His least favorite: “Right field,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
So far, first base hasn’t reached the top or bottom of his rankings, but the evaluation period is about to begin.
The Twins signed him as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, but no one believed that the man once described by General Manager Thad Levine as having a “generous carriage” would last there. Sano moved to third base for the 2012 season. Some with the club believed he would end up at first, and so he has, moving across the diamond to accommodate the arrival of Josh Donaldson.
It means Sano is no longer filling in at first when someone needs rest or is injured. It’s time to sweat the small stuff. Standards need to be met. More importantly, he has to gain the trust of his fellow infielders to complete the plays they begin in the field.
If successful, the Twins will have made a big upgrade at third base, because Donaldson grades out as an above-average defender at third while Sano was below average there.
The switch needs to work, and Sano is committed to making it work. That’s a start. Because after playing 280 major league games at third and 38 in right field, there is nowhere else for the 26-year-old slugger to take his glove.
“It’s different now because last year, I played third, and sometimes they told me to play first base, so I felt a little not in a good spot because playing both positions was different,” Sano said. “But now, I play just first base, and I feel more comfortable now.”
Elevating the infield
There’s footwork, positioning, knowing where to play hitters. Those are just a few of the responsibilities a first baseman has on his plate.
Twins infield coach Tony Diaz, who is working with Sano on the transition, has requirements. At the top is making the routine outs, perfecting the basic plays that comes his way. Then there’s timing, getting to the bag at the right moment, or starting a double play. That second part could be intriguing because Sano has a powerful arm that could trigger many 3-6-3 double plays, although he was charged with a throwing error Sunday against Tampa Bay.
Then there are the difference-making plays — such as scooping throws in the dirt, which happen frequently. There’s nothing that makes an infielder more comfortable than knowing his throw can be a little short but the first baseman can still turn into an out.
For example, Oakland’s Matt Chapman won the AL Gold Glove in 2019 at third after committing nine errors all season, but Athletics first baseman Matt Olson is getting credit for scooping several slightly errant throws, saving Chapman from being charged with more errors.
So for every strong fielder at second, third and short, there’s a strong first baseman behind them.
“First base is a critical position because you make everyone around you better,” Diaz said. “The fact that you are able to become real good at picking the ball in the dirt or jumping and tagging, the fact that you are able to accomplish that as a first baseman, that enhances everybody else’s confidence in the infield.
“Because now they know they don’t have to be perfect. So that allows them to make better throws because they know this guy’s got you.”
Thanks to the website FanGraphs, scooped throws are tabulated. The Mets’ Pete Alonzo led the majors with 34 scoops last season. The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo was next with 32. Third with 31? Sano’s predecessor, C.J. Cron, who is now with the Tigers.
Cron’s footwork at first isn’t the best, but he bailed out his teammates time and time again. That is what Sano is facing as a full-time first baseman.
“He’s only played there a couple games,” Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco said. “He can be better, and I think that is what he is working on now. He’s trying to be better.”
One thing is for certain, the tall and sturdy Sano gives his infielders a nice big target.
“Oh, a really big target,” Polanco said with a smile. “I think he’s going to be a good player there at first base, because if you want something you just have to work for it, and he is working for it too.”
Putting in the effort
The Twins have applauded the time Sano is investing in the field. As a third baseman, Sano had minus-7 defensive runs saved in 2019, according to FanGraphs, and a flat zero in nine games at first base. So a little improvement will push him into the plus side.
Olson led all qualified first basemen with 18 defensive runs saved in 2019. Cron was fifth at five.
Sano’s teammates are doing their part with the transition.
“I have bounced throws to him at first base so he can practice the scoops,” second baseman Luis Arraez said.
During infield work before a spring training game vs. Atlanta on Feb. 25, even minor league infielder Koby Eaves bounced throws to Sano during drills. That same day, Sano spoke with Braves backup first baseman Yonder Alonso about techniques he can use.
“There’s a ton of reps, a ton of discussions, there’s a lot going on over there that you generally don’t think about unless you’re a first baseman and you spend time not just in the games but also in the workouts,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You have to repeat these things over and over again, physically go out there, go through it, but also have these kinds of discussions all day long. Miggy’s really engaged. He’s just super excited about this move and learning and asking a ton of questions. That’s half the battle right there.”
The Twins won’t know for sure how Sano will fare as a full-time first baseman. But his actions suggest he is taking the move seriously and wants to be the guy his fellow infielders can rely on.
“Since the beginning of spring training I’ve been playing there and I feel good,” Sano said. “By the beginning of the season, I will feel more comfortable there because I’m working every day. And when you work every day you get more confidence. I know it’s a new position, I’ve played there before for a [few] games, and I feel really good.”