By Phil Miller, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –
BELOIT, Wis. — Miguel Sano nervously handles a baseball as he talks, absent-mindedly testing a variety of grips like a pitcher learning a slider. But the ball looks like a miniature toy in Sano’s huge hands; his palm seems to swallow the ball, his fingers entwine it.
Like a boxer’s fists, Sano’s primary weapons on the baseball field can appear oversized and super-powered.
“He’s such a big boy. He’s got a lot of strength in those hands,” Beloit manager Nelson Prada says of the Twins’ most promising prospect. “And when he extends those arms, we’ve seen what can happen.”
Yeah, here’s what can happen: Batted balls soar toward the horizon. Scouts become enthralled. Millions of dollars are offered, contracts are signed. And a legend is born — years before reality arrives.
“There’s no doubt, he’s got a chance to be something special,” Prada says. “But he’s still learning.”
He is, and the lessons aren’t always fun. After a month spent toying with low Class A pitching for the Snappers, Sano endured a lengthy slump in May, a drought that reached 2-for-35 at one point. The Dominican teenager — he turned 19 in May — leads the Midwest League in home runs (13) and RBI (40), but he has also struck out 60 times in 51 games and his batting average has slipped to .245 through Wednesday.
“The league knows him a little better now, so he’s not seeing the same pitches,” Prada says. “In April, they were throwing him fastballs, and he took advantage. Now he’s seeing a lot more pitches middle-in, so he can’t get those arms extended. We’re helping him try to make an adjustment.”
Add it to the list. Sano’s entire life is an adjustment these days, from language to diet to lonely lifestyle. He has been a professional since he was 16, and has already spent one summer in Florida and another in Kentucky, but he still feels like a kid a long way from home. He has bonded with fellow infielder Eddie Rosario, a Puerto Rican who says Sano “is not really a friend. He’s more like a brother to me.”
So is Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, like Sano a native of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, who lived through the same sort of lifestyle changes. They speak by phone often, Sano says, and he tries to pattern his game after the three-time All-Star. He also leans on Cano for advice on living so far from home.
“It was hard coming here when I was young,” Sano says through an interpreter, Snappers teammate Tim Shibuya. “I talk to my mom, talk to my friends, on (Internet) chats and Skype. Sometimes my mom cries because I’m not there, but she understands that it’s my job, that I’m following my dream, and I hope things will work out and I’ll be able to play Major League Baseball.”
That’s the Twins’ dream, too. Minnesota won a bidding war for Sano in 2009 by offering $3.1 million, the second-largest bonus the team has ever paid, behind the $5.1 million Joe Mauer received a decade ago. In doing so, they turned the young infielder into a star-in-waiting, with a documentary crew turning his life into a movie. Sano is already rated by Baseball America as the best prospect in the Twins organization, perhaps the best since Mauer, and he’s already vaguely aware that Twins fans are impatiently waiting for him to arrive and rescue the slumping team. Plenty of them have already made the five-hour drive to southern Wisconsin to check him out this spring.
“I didn’t know there were so many out there. I’m just trying to focus on getting myself up there so I can play at a higher level and be able to help the team win,” Sano says. “I want to be there in two years.”
Watch him swing the bat, and it’s easy to imagine such a fast-track trip through the minors. Sano’s swing is gorgeous, a fluid and powerful motion that appears effortless but sends slapped-at baseballs screaming over outfielders’ heads.
But there are plenty of obvious flaws in his game, too, and Prada says the Twins are prepared to take their time with Sano’s development. He needs to cut down on strikeouts, the manager says, by learning better pitch recognition. His 31 walks are a good sign, but their frequency had decreased in recent weeks. He did draw three walks in an 8-1 victory at Quad Cities on Thursday night.
“He’s thinking too much at the plate. He’s guessing up there lately,” Prada says. “The good hitters don’t guess, they see the ball and hit it. But his confidence has been affected by the funk that he’s in.”
His fielding may be, too. Sano was a shortstop when he signed, but at 6 feet 3 and 235 pounds — and still growing, he says — he was judged too big to stay there. The adjustment to third base has been difficult; Sano has a strong arm but an inconsistent glove. His 19 errors so far also lead the league, prompting speculation that his future may be in the outfield — a notion Sano rejects.
“I want to stay there (at third). That’s where I’m going to play,” Sano says, though two hours later, his head dropped to his chest after he let a ground ball scoot between his legs. “The hardest part is the short hops, having to learn all the different hops on the different fields. And understanding what to do with the ball in certain situations.”
That all takes time to absorb, says Prada, who has managed the Twins’ Class A team for five seasons. It’s why Sano has three more levels above Beloit to master before the Twins can pencil him into the lineup.
“He’s going to be great, but give it time. In order to move up a level, you’ve got to show a good discipline at the plate, and make the routine plays every time,” Prada says. “He’s not there yet. But he’s only 19.”