MINNEAPOLIS — When a Major League Baseball team dumps some salary and tries again by building through the draft and developing young talent, it hopes it can establish one of those guys as a cornerstone.
For now, it appears the Minnesota Twins — an organization that hopes to be closer to the finish line in the rebuild process than not — have found such a player in the form of a power-hitting right-handed bat from the Dominican Republic.
His name is Miguel Sano.
Sano, Minnesota’s 24-year-old third baseman built like an oak tree with biceps bigger than many’s thighs, is hitting .268 with 25 home runs and 72 RBIs along with 67 runs entering play Friday. His name has been littered throughout the American League leaders charts in those categories all year.
He’s also become a fan favorite in the Twin Cities due to his tape measure bombs, production and being a homegrown player delivering early on his hype. The fans of Minnesota darn near made him an All-Star starter, though he made the 2017 game in Miami as a reserve. His No. 22 jersey pops up all over and is starting to rival Minnesota-born and former MVP Joe Mauer’s sales, it seems.
His new fame hasn’t changed the way the Home Run Derby runner-up has gone about business, however.
“Not much has changed,” Sano said at his locker in the Target Field clubhouse Monday afternoon. “Come every day here, play my game and do my job. I’ve had a good year, but I just come in and work hard and try to do the little things.”
Sano came up at the age of 22 in 2015 and showed flashes of the stardom he is beginning to relish today. In his rookie campaign, he hit .269 with 18 home runs and 52 RBIs in just 80 games and helped keep the Twins afloat in the wild card race until the last series of the season.
He had a minor regression in 2016 — as did the Twins in general — with a .239 average, 25 home runs and 66 RBIs. He’s tied his home run mark and surpassed his RBI clip already this summer.
A key? Not being a pull-only hitter.
“He’s kind of getting back to where he was when he first came up,” Minnesota bench coach and Menomonie resident Joe Vavra said. “He’s using the field a little bit more, and early in the year especially, he was really driving ball the opposite way. His BP was structured basically toward right center. Not letting the ball necessarily get deep. He can hit it out of any part of the ballpark at will. The first half of the year was just outstanding.”
Sano has six home runs to right and 10 to center this year. By comparison, only three of his 25 round trippers in 2016 weren’t pulled.
That 30-point-plus bump in average also is a product of that.
Vavra, a Chippewa Falls High School and UW-Stout graduate, also has noticed how Sano and all the young hitters have adjusted to what’s thrown to them and gotten better handling pitches on the outer half of the plate. Another sign of maturity, he said.
Sano has bounced all over from position to position, but he’s received the bulk of his starts at third base this year. That’s usually an expendable position, and guys like Ryan Braun and Alex Gordon have moved from the hot corner in their careers, but for now Sano is trying to make the most of it.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said.
Part of the reason for his popularity among fans — not just with the Twins but across baseball — is his boisterous personality. He’s not one to shy away from a group of people — or an opposing pitcher who comes up and in on him.
“He’s always got a lot of energy and bouncing around no matter what he’s doing,” teammate Max Kepler said. “He is usually speaking Spanish, and I’ve been trying to brush up on it, but he’s always talking, always something. Definitely positive vibes from him all the time.”
Sano is a big man, and it’s not hard to believe why he’s regularly hitting rockets that go well over 400 feet. That’s part of his marketability.
According to Kepler, though, he has yet to experiment with vegetarianism like Prince Fielder once did.
“We all are big fans of Fogo de Chao (Brazilian Steakhouse),” Kepler said. “We’ve had some team dinners there, and Sano certainly puts away a lot of meat.”
The Twins are knocking on the door of October baseball. They’ve already shown flashes this season as well as 2015. They’ve got their cornerstone guy as well as a plethora of young talent. Bring it on, says Sano.
“A lot of young guys, it’s who people want to see,” Sano said. “A lot of talent over here, and people are doing a great job.”