Aaron Sabato, a proud University of North Carolina Tar Heel, claims that he didn’t know that his new farm director, Alex Hassan, is a Duke University graduate. Either that, or he’s playing dumb so that he can hide his true feelings this March, when basketball-fueled emotions run high.
There is a bit of a power imbalance in that relationship, after all.
“It is what it is,” said Sabato, the Twins’ No. 7 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. “I love UNC, so obviously, I don't like the Dukies, but when it comes to your farm director, he's got it. … He can hate UNC as much as he wants.”
How political of him. (Probably helps that Duke isn’t in the NCAA tournament this year.)
Perhaps Sabato is just trying to make a good first impression as part of his first big league Spring Training camp. After all, this camp is almost all about first impressions for the first baseman.
The Twins’ first-round selection from the 2020 MLB Draft, Sabato was invited to Minnesota’s 75-man player pool as Minor League depth mostly because his post-Draft months have been spent unlike any other first-round picks in recent club history amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think for now, we're still trying to get some samples on him, both offensively and defensively,” Hassan said. ”I think it's just getting his feet wet and letting him play. There are minor things that we're trying to expose him to, especially on the defensive side, some nuances of playing that position, but, really, we want to just let the kid play and get to know him and see where the bigger areas are going to be for him going forward."
Most first-round picks in years past would have made a quick stop in Minneapolis to sign their contract and fulfill some media obligations before heading to their first professional assignment. Before the realignment of the Minor Leagues, Sabato might have spent last summer in Elizabethton, the Twins’ former Rookie-level affiliate, where many upper-tier prospects have gotten their feet wet over the years.
But he never got that chance because the Minor League season was canceled. Instead of the long bus rides crisscrossing through rural America, Sabato’s first taste of pro ball came in the form of weekly or biweekly Zoom calls with hitting and fielding coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists and other staff members.
That was really the extent of what he could do with the Twins. In the absence of organized activity, he had to work out with his father, contact his old hitting coaches and work out in isolated facilities around New York to stay in baseball shape. Fortunately, he still knew a few folks who can throw harder than 90 mph.
“There’s no more school, no having to wake up and do homework,” Sabato said. “It was just baseball and take care of your body.”
As tough as that was for Sabato, it was also a challenge for the Twins to get a feel for their newest major investment in that time. Many a Zoom call was spent with such staffers as Double-A hitting coach Ryan Smith, skill development coordinator Tucker Frawley and former coordinators Donegal Fergus and Billy Boyer as the Twins’ coaches tried to get a feel for the young slugger.
What’s Sabato’s routine like? What is he thinking when he’s at the plate? How does he use his body? What pitches does he like to hit? These are the kinds of things that the Twins might have gotten to measure firsthand in a normal season but were instead relegated to sessions of Zoom tag.
It’s one thing to hear about those things from afar, but there’s no real replacement for in-person evaluations, which is why it was a priority for the Twins to get Sabato to their instructional league activity this offseason and, ultimately, to include him in their Spring Training plans.
“He's our first-round pick,” Hassan said. “He was, obviously, a higher-priority player for us and somebody that we think has a really bright future and just wanted to take advantage of the fact that we could fit him in and start getting him some reps."
The 21-year-old has made 12 Grapefruit League appearances this spring -- including one start -- and is 1-for-9 with a bloop single. He’s not paying attention to that, though, and, in fact, neither side was really setting any expectations or goals this spring -- mainly because they’re still trying to make up for lost time in that getting-to-know-you period.
There’s a bit of an advantage to this, too, as Sabato now gets the chance to pick the brains of veteran big leaguers such as Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson in his first taste of professional baseball.
“I really just want to be able to watch players and find a routine.” Sabato said. “Find, 'OK, this is the player, that's what my work ethic is like.' They can mess around a little, or maybe that guy is too laser-focused. I always like to have fun. I like to go about my business, but when it's time to do work, it's time to work. I think going through the clubhouse, you can see guys who are like you in that sense.”
It is somewhat of a jarring start to one’s career -- especially when Sabato and the Twins faced Nathan Eovaldi in their Spring Training opener against the Red Sox. That was an eye-opener for Sabato, a lifelong Yankees fan from New York.
Even as the most chaotic part of an unprecedented transition is behind Sabato, life is still coming at him quickly.
"Yeah, it definitely does,” Sabato said. “But I mean, with what I do, I'm pretty blessed. I really can't complain."