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Around the Horn: Sano Show at hot corner

January 30, 2019

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's third-base situation.Around the Horn series: C | SP | 1BMINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins haven't shied away from the

Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's third-base situation.
Around the Horn series: C | SP | 1B
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins haven't shied away from the fact that 2019 will be an important season for both Miguel Sanó and Byron Buxton to prove that they can be the cornerstones of the next Minnesota contender, and both have doubled down on their conditioning this offseason to set themselves up for success on the field.
While the pressure is on for both to perform in 2019, the Twins arguably have more to gain from a healthy Sano. While Buxton has the talent to be one of the most valuable players in baseball if he can put it all together, the Twins have a pair of solid options behind him in fourth outfielder Jake Cave, who impressed as a rookie, and later on, prospect LaMonte Wade, whom MLB Pipeline lists as the Twins' No. 13 prospect. 
But with the departure of Eduardo Escobar at last season's non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Twins have fewer options to make up much lost production from Sano at the moment. Ehire Adrianza figures to slot into the backup role, but the utility infielder will derive most of his value as a versatile bench piece, and behind him are Ronald Torreyes, another utility player, and Willians Astudillo, who impressed last September but has only played 29 Major League games at age 27.
So whether it's through his improved conditioning, a new mentor figure in Nelson Cruz, a new coaching staff or other factors, this will be an important year for Sano to play up to his potential -- for both the young slugger and for his team.
What's the Sano situation?
It's tough to truly give up on a player like Sano because his talent is apparent, and he has shown it on the field for an extended stretch, especially during his 2017 season, when he was named to his lone American League All-Star team and hit .264/.352/.507 with 28 homers in 114 games.
"The thing about Miguel is that he has an incredible amount of potential, and he's already shown his potential," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "This isn't a situation where we're hopeful and we're not sure what he's capable of. I feel like I do know what he's capable of, and I feel the rest of our organization does, too."

According to Statcast™, Sano's emergence in 2017 coincided with a sharp increase in his aggression at the plate. Two seasons ago, his overall swing rate jumped by nearly eight percent, while his swing rate on first pitches climbed by 15 percent. He made less contact, but when bat found ball, his average exit velocity was fourth in MLB. He wasn't quite as aggressive last season, but he was also getting fewer pitches in the strike zone -- and his line drive rate plummeted while his strikeouts climbed.
On the one hand, you have a hitter that has double-digit home runs and walk rates in all four of his Major League seasons and hard-hit percentages in the top four percent of the league in '16 and '17. On the other hand, you have a hitter that has struck out at a 36.3 percent clip in his career -- and that hasn't been trending in the right direction, topping out at a career-worst 38.5 percent in 2018, when he was demoted to Class A Advanced Fort Myers for 19 games.
Sano struggled with his conditioning last offseason while he recovered from a surgery that surgically reinforced his left shin. He's had a chance to turn that around under the watchful eye of the team this offseason, and has tested his improving frame under playing conditions in the Dominican Winter League, where he won the championship with Estrellas Orientales, his hometown team in San Pedro de Macoris.
Now it's just a matter of seeing if that work will translate to the field in a pivotal season for the 25-year-old third baseman.
"It's our job to give him every resource and put him in a spot where he can use his skills and all of his talents," Baldelli said. "It's all right there, and he's made his body a priority, and coming into camp and once they lay eyes on him and have a chance to see him, they're going to be very happy with what they see."
What does the depth behind Sano look like?
The 29-year-old Adrianza figures to be the backup at several infield positions, including third base, as he's out of Minor League options and put up a reasonable .251/.301/.379 line with six homers as a utility infielder in 2018, though he was pressed into extended action as the starting third baseman in September after Sano injured his leg. He has played all four infield positions and some left field in his two seasons with the Twins.
Torreyes will likely be in the picture at some point as well, as the 26-year-old signed a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Twins, avoiding arbitration, after he was non-tendered by the Cubs earlier in the offseason. Torreyes hit .280/.294/.370 in 41 games last season for the Yankees. Astudillo is already on the 40-man roster and should also factor into the equation, particularly in light of his versatility, his .355/.371/.516 cameo in the Major Leagues last season and his runner-up finish for Venezuelan Winter League MVP.
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 18 Travis Blankenhorn (age: 22, highest level: Class A Advanced)
No. 26 Andrew Bechtold (age: 22, highest level: Class A)
Projected depth chart (2018 statistics)
Miguel Sano (.199/.281/.398, 13 HR, 41 RBIs, 82 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR)
Ehire Adrianza (.251/.301/.379, 6 HR, 39 RBIs, 82 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR)

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.