The visit took place around this time three years ago. The picture looked different back then, blissful and overflowing with optimism. Failure wasn’t even really part of the discussion because the narrative was too narrowly focused to consider worst-case scenarios.
In early summer 2015, I traveled to the Twins Class AA affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., to chronicle the organization’s bumper crop of blue-chip prospects. They were all together on a relatively similar trajectory.
Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton were there, along with Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler.
They were labeled a “Dream Team.”
“We have expectations from each other,” then-Lookouts manager Doug Mientkiewicz told his players at the start of that season. “Expectations from Baseball America, expectations from the fans of the Minnesota Twins and the Twin Cities. Now we’ll see what you’re made of.”
Three years later, we’re still waiting. And wondering.
The situation isn’t worst-case scenario, yet. But those who gazed into the Twins future and saw rainbows and puppy kisses received another blunt reminder that baseball development cannot be scripted or predicted with ironclad certainty.
The Twins begin an important three-game series Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox. Berrios is scheduled to start the opener. His career arc is trending in the direction of him becoming staff ace. As predicted.
Elsewhere Tuesday, Buxton is expected to begin what sounds like an extended rehab assignment at Class AAA Rochester while Sano is starting from scratch in Florida and Polanco continues to serve his 80-game suspension stemming from a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.
To further illustrate how Murphy’s Law has engulfed this season, Polanco’s minor league assignment was delayed after he suffered a cut on his finger when his hand got jammed in a door.
By some minor miracle the Twins continue to tread water as a sub-.500 team yet trail division-leading Cleveland by only 5½ games. They have avoided being buried despite getting limited contributions (or nothing at all) from Buxton, Sano, Polanco, Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Logan Morrison and Ervin Santana.
With the exception of Eddie Rosario in left and Kepler in right, major questions loom at every position in evaluating future plans.
Jason Castro’s knee problems could force the team to start over at catcher. Mauer is in the final season of his mega-contract and there’s been no indication either way about his future. Dozier is mired in a prolonged slump, and given the organization hasn’t approached him about a contract extension, his tenure with the team looks tenuous. It’s not a stretch to suggest their positions will be manned by someone else next season.
The organization desperately needs the young guys to fulfill their promise. Anything less will be the equivalent of hitting reset. Nobody wants to go there.
The Twins hope Polanco picks up where he left off once his suspension ends — a capable hitter who showed improvement defensively at shortstop last season. A steroid suspension is far from ideal for a young player trying to establish his foothold in the big leagues, but this should be a hard lesson learned.
Buxton remains a defensive marvel, but he still must prove he can hit big-league pitching beyond an occasional hot streak. The team has blamed his struggles at the plate this season on a broken toe. Maybe that will be proven true. But Buxton also made changes (again) to his swing during his DL stint, so his toe wasn’t the only culprit.
Sano’s issues are more far-reaching. He’s out of shape and his swing and plate discipline have gone haywire. Now he’s essentially starting over at the team’s headquarters in Florida. This won’t be a quick fix.
If Sano truly is committed to fixing his problems, his career will get back on track. If not, shame on him. His choice.
The Twins start a big series Tuesday with one of baseball’s best teams in town. Berrios will take the mound and in a perfect world, the first three hitters in the lineup would be Buxton, Polanco and Sano. That was the vision three years ago when anything seemed possible.
Instead, this pause feels like a crossroads. For the players and the organization.