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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: A few points in defense of Miguel Sano’s defense

My recollection of the Twins’ experimenting with Miguel Sano as a right fielder goes something like this: It was a highly questionable decision from the beginning, both the Twins and Sano deserve some shared blame for its failing, and while Sano still had a cannon arm and a little agility for his hulking size, it’s hard to remember many positive developments.

Sano strained a leg muscle and was moved to the infield and the DH role for the rest of the season. Weighing more than 265 pounds, his best bet to be a value-adding fielder is as a third baseman, in my opinion. If that doesn’t work over the next couple of years, maybe he’s relegated to being a first baseman and/or a DH. The Twins have miles to go before they settle that with any sort of finality.

With that as a backdrop, here are 5 thoughts – amid mounting skepticism– on how Sano could succeed at third base. I’ve made the case in the past about the fair and somewhat obvious questions about his ability there. So this column will focus more on the glass-half-full end of the spectrum.

1. Sano has fans on the Twins coaching staff.

I talked with third base coach Gene Glynn, who works with infielders, about Sano’s development at the position. If Sano’s going to put in extra work at the position, it will be with Glynn—the same guy who worked with Trevor Plouffe to help him improve over time in the field.

“He’s got a big arm,” Glynn said of Sano. “I think he’s got soft hands. And he’s very athletic for his size. He really can make some really good plays. Now, I think it’s just getting back to that comfort zone—that that’s who he is and where he’s going to be. I don’t worry about him catching it or throwing it. I just think that all the tools are there and he has the drive to get better. So, we’re really looking for a guy that’s going to be really good there, not just be OK.”

“Oh, I think he has a chance to be a really good third baseman, with his quickness, for his size,” Glynn continued. “Hopefully it comes sooner than later.”

That tracks with my own observations about Sano as a fielder (although admittedly I’d be more critical of his gaffes than his coach might be). Yes, he’s got a strong arm, he’s agile for a giant person, but there still are some unanswered questions about Sano’s future at his position.

Here’s Glynn with two more attributes that ought to work in his favor.

“He’s fearless on the field. He’ll stand in front of the ball. And he thinks he can make every play, which is great,” Glynn said. “So I see him someday – and I know I’m going out on a limb – I see him being an all-star third baseman someday.”

2. Sano has athleticism that might surprise some people.

I was very surprised recently when I saw a post on FanGraphs titled “Miguel Sano, Defensive Superstar.” I was doubly surprised when I found out it was referencing the slugger’s tour of duty in the outfield! But then surprise gave way to curiosity when I read Dave Cameron’s first sentence that said: “I’m going to be up front with you: that headline is seriously misleading. Based on what we can tell, Miguel Sano is probably not a good defensive player.”

It’s an interesting post and if you’re excited about where defensive metrics are headed now that we can start to incorporate player tracking data, you should give it a read. The upshot of the post is that what Sano lacked in terms of consistency as a right fielder, he at least salvaged some interest by making two incredibly difficult catches.

Is Max Kepler underrated as an outfielder?

Using an emerging stat called Catch Probability as a reference, Cameron pointed out that you’d expect a bad outfielder to be very bad at making the most difficult catches. But Sano – a bad outfielder – was given three opportunities to make what’s known as a 5-star catch. That is, a catch in which the running distance required to catch it before it hits the ground makes it exceptionally difficult. On average last year, MLB outfielders made those catches just 8% of the time. Byron Buxton caught 6 of his 24 opportunities for 5-star catches; Max Kepler caught 6 of 32.

Sano caught two of his three.

And so obviously that’s not to say he’d be a future Gold Glover if given enough time and training in the outfield. As Cameron notes, though, maybe it’s a signal that we’d underrated his raw ability as a fielder.

I don’t foresee the Twins trotting him out the outfield again anytime soon. Locally, some people were celebrating the fact that he’d lost weight this winter—and he told the Star Tribune he weighs 268 pounds. That’s awfully big for an outfielder.

His ability to make those catches, though, hints at the surprising athleticism – wheels and a quick start that would surprise you if you just walked by a guy who looks more like an NFL defensive lineman than an MLB infielder.

Here are the two 5-star catches that Cameron highlighted in his piece.

But, you might say, then there was his improbable aversion to catching pop flies in the infield, which started on a triple-A rehab stint and continued during his audition at third base in the Majors.

And fair enough.

What I do know is that the Twins have challenged Sano to be more of an impact player in the field, and they believe in his athleticism.

3. Does he have the necessary buy-in?

Sano, as far as I can tell, seems like he’s on board with the Twins challenging him to be better.

Like all players in Twins camp this year, he had a sit-down with top-level Twins decision makers, including manager Paul Molitor. Based on conversations with those parties this spring, it sounds like Sano at the very least heard the message they conveyed.

“I want to play my whole season at third base because I’m too young to DH,” Sano said. “I try to get better every day. … I work a lot on defense, so nothing’s hard right now. I try to make every play [that] I can make, try to do my job.”

He worked out for about six weeks in New York, he said, where his new agency – Jay Z’s Roc Nation – is located. The rest of the winter he worked out in the Dominican Republic, he said, with Fernando Tatis and others.

What did he want to show the Twins this spring?

“I want to show that I worked in the offseason. I worked on my body, my defense,” he said.

And what about the early critics – the ones who say he’s too big or too mistake-prone to succeed at the hot corner?

“I’m working hard for that. I want to be an everyday [third baseman] — I don’t want to play DH. I prepare myself for 162 games in the big leagues,” he said. “And then, there’s nothing [that] I can say. I need [to] only show everybody I’m ready to have the moment, the opportunity to play my game.”

When he talks about defense, he talks about guys like Adrian Beltre and Manny Machado. That speaks to his inner confidence. (For reference, though, when he talks about his hitting he talks about Miguel Cabrera, so it’s fair to say that Sano’s a confident guy.)

4. He’s got the arm to succeed at any position.

Sano had Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm in the spring of 2014, wiping out a season of development. Last year, the Twins probably would have given him more of a look at third base but for a sore arm that developed around the beginning of August.

When he’s healthy, his arm strength might be the best among infielders currently in the Twins system.

By now, you’ve heard about his arm and you’ve probably seen it first-hand. If not, here’s one example that had former Twins pitcher Tommy Milone saying “thank you” and former A’s outfielder Coco Crisp saying, “Are you serious?”

Sano looks unfazed. He expects himself to make that play. And speaking of which…

5. He’ll make the do-or-die play.

The other component you’ll hear Twins coaches praise him for is the short game. When Sano has to charge in on a ball – a bunt or a tapper hit in the infielder, for example – you wouldn’t necessarily expect this huge guy to convert that play into an out. Sano can do that.

In my opinion, he should be able to curb the popup-dropping problem that gave him fits last year. And if he can use that surprising agility and rocket arm to become a better third baseman, the Twins will be in a better position with him than if he’s a future first baseman or DH.

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