Hit and Run: Evaluating debuts of Twins' Sano and Braves' Banuelos
1. Hello, Sano
Hoping to capitalize on an unexpectedly hot start that has thrust them into second place in the AL Central, the Twins have taken the wraps off two of their top prospects over the past few weeks. On June 14, centerfielder Byron Buxton, the consensus No. 1 prospect heading into the 2014 season, made his debut, while on Thursday it was third baseman Miguel Sano getting his feet wet.
Slotting into the lineup as the designated hitter against the Royals, the 22-year-old Sano went 1-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in the Twins' 2–0 victory over the Royals. His first hit, a chopper to third base that he beat out for an infield single in the ninth inning, was the antithesis of the big bombs that have made him the talk of the prospect world for the past six years. But combined with pinch-runner Shane Robinson, a sacrifice bunt and an Eduardo Escobar triple, it gave the Twins some breathing room in what had been a 1-0 game. Here it is:
It was perhaps fitting that Sano made his debut on July 2—the date that marks the beginning of the new international signing period—for he already stands as one of the most famous and scrutinized players to pass through that process. As a 16-year-old shortstop in 2009, he was the subject of a bidding war, questions about his age that led to an investigation that forestalled his signing as well as an acclaimed documentary, Pelotero, that detailed the convoluted and sometimes heartbreaking process by which teenagers in the Dominican Republic are absorbed into organized baseball. (The crew that made Pelotero was on hand for the debut, working on a sequel.) Initially offered a bonus of $2.6 million by the Pirates, Sano took until late September to sign with the Twins for $3.15 million, the second largest for any Dominican player to that point.
At the time he was signed, Sano was listed as 6’3”, 190 pounds; he's now a strapping 6’4” and 260 pounds. He's climbed through the Twins' system in methodical fashion, his progress slowed by a rough conversion to third base. But as his 80-grade power has translated from showcases to game, he's been well regarded enough to crack the top prospect lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus six times. He peaked at No. 6 on BA's list heading into 2014 and ranked 12th and 13th on the two lists, respectively, coming into this season.
From 2011 to '13, Sano hit a combined 83 home runs at four stops ranging from Rookie to Double A, but he missed all of 2014 due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. After a slow start—an Opening Day home run notwithstanding—he's hit .274/.374/.544 with 15 homers in 290 PA for Double A Chattanooga, including .315/.400/.601 with 11 homers since the start of May. Baseball Prospectus's Chris Crawford and Bret Sayre had this to say about him earlier this week:
[H]is ability to transfer that weight along with his incredibly strong wrists give him as much power as any right-handed hitting prospect in baseball. He’s long-limbed and lets the ball travel deep, so he can take the ball out to any part of the field. If you ever get a chance to see the 22-year-old take batting practice, do it. It’s a fun show.
That power makes Sano an impressive hitting prospect, but what makes him one of the best is his feel for hitting. Because of the length of the limbs and swing there’s a lot of swing and miss, but he commands the strike zone like a veteran. Unlike many players his size, he doesn’t get tied up easily, and his ability to pick up spin and repeat his swing allows the ball to jump off the bat. A future batting champion he is not, but he certainly can hit for average and will draw his fair share of walks both due to his patience at the plate and opposing pitcher’s fear.
I'm among the lucky ones who got to see Sano's batting practice before the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field. Let's just say that if things go as planned, he'll be a Home Run Derby participant soon.
Hopefully, he'll be in the lineup alongside Buxton soon enough, but the 21-year-old centerfielder hit the disabled list last week with a left thumb sprain that could sideline him for 4–6 weeks. Things had yet to fully click at the big league level for Buxton, who was just 7-for-37 with 15 strikeouts before his injury, but given that the team has received a league-worst .580 OPS from their centerfielders (.243/.285/.295 combined), they'll leave the light on for him. At 42-37, the upstart Twins—who haven't posted a winning season since 2010—currently occupy one of the AL's Wild Card slots and are 3.5 games behind the Royals in the Central division.
2. Banuelos sweats out debut
Sano wasn't the only prospect who made his long-awaited major league debut on Thursday. In Atlanta, 24-year-old Braves lefty Manny Banuelos outdueled Max Sherzer and shut out the Nationals for 5 2/3 innings in a 2-1 win.
Signed out of Mexico by the Yankees in 2008, the 5’10” lefty was known as one of the team’s "Killer B" pitching prospects alongside Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman. He reached Doubl A as a 19-year-old in 2010, and made the major prospect lists the following spring, including a number 27 ranking among BP's Top 101. Alas, he was limited to six appearances in 2012 due to elbow woes that ended with him undergoing Tommy John surgery in October of that year. The road back has been difficult, and his stuff is no longer nearly as dazzling. Where he once sported mid-90s velocity, rare for a lefty, he's down into the high 80s/low 90s. His curve and changeup are not as sharp and can no longer be considered plus pitches. After a rough 2014 season in which he struggled with his command, he was traded to the Braves in exchange for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve on Jan. 1. Despite walking 4.1 per nine at Triple A Gwinnett, he posted a 2.29 ERA in 82 2/3 innings before being called up to make a spot start in place of Williams Perez, who hit the DL with a foot contusion.
Working primarily with a fastball-changeup-curve combo, Banuelos held the Nationals to just two singles (one by Denard Span to lead off the first) and walked none over the course of his 75 pitches, of which he threw 48 for strikes. He hit the final two batters he faced and was forced to leave the game due to dehydration and cramping. ("We knew he was a sweater," said manager Fredi Gonzalez afterwards, though he did not compare him to former Braves lefty Freddy Garcia.) Via Brooks Baseball, Banuelos’s fastball averaged 91.2 mph and peaked at 92.4. Of his 10 swings and misses, seven came via the changeup, including the finishing touches on his first-inning strikeouts of Yunel Escobar and Bryce Harper. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
Banuelos will get at least one more start with the Braves, though it's not a given that he remains in the majors after that. He's on an innings limit this season, so if he does stick at the big league level, at some point he may pitch out of the bullpen with the hope of building towards a rotation spot next season.
3. 30th anniversary of a Camp classic
As we head into the holiday weekend, it's worth pausing to celebrate a noteworthy anniversary of one of baseball history's greatest July 4 moments. On July 4, 1985, the Braves and Mets squared off at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for what became a 19-inning marathon that clocked in at six hours and 10 minutes, not counting rain delays that pushed back the start of the game and that later forced rookie Dwight Gooden to the showers after 2 1/3 innings and just 49 pitches. The Mets won 16–13, but the game is remembered more for pitcher Rick Camp's game-tying home run—the only one he ever hit in 197 major league plate appearances—off Tom Gorman on an 0–2 count with two outs in the bottom of the 18th inning:
"That certifies this game as the wackiest, wildest, most improbable game in history!" gushed TBS announcer John Sterling, now the radio play-by-play voice of the Yankees.
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As exciting and improbable as it was, the fluke home run did not end the affair, however. It didn't exactly end well for Camp, either. After the homer, he returned to the mound for his third inning of work but yielded five runs to the Mets, then struck out against Ron Darling to end the game in the bottom of the 19th, just shy of 4 a.m. Despite the ungodly hour, the Braves treated the remaining fans to their planned fireworks show. For more on the game, you can read Cliff Corcoran's writeup, published on the occasion of Camp's untimely passing in 2013 at age 59, as well as this more detailed remembrance of what’s now know as “The Rick Camp Game” by Sam Gardner for Fox Sports. Enjoy the fireworks: