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Will Royals' formula have long-term success?
3:16 | MLB
Will Royals' formula have long-term success?
Tuesday March 8th, 2016

FORT MYERS, Fla.—Too often, baseball players are deconstructed into simple math problems. The math said that Jacoby Ellsbury would slug better with the Yankees, that James Shields would yield fewer homers with the Padres, and that Yasiel Puig would get better after his stunning rookie season. The same math says that Miguel Sano, who hit 18 homers in 80 games as a 22-year-old rookie for the Twins last season, will smash at least 35 this year.

But math isn’t so simple when it comes to people, especially when it comes to young players who have yet to play a full season in the major leagues. Progress isn’t always so linear. Sano could be the next Giancarlo Stanton, or he could be the next Puig. The fate of a promising season for the Twins may swing on the answer.

On one hand, Sano is being asked to play an entirely new position in rightfield—a task that began with him showing up to camp about 20 pounds heavier than what Minnesota prefers. On the other, the only trait of his bigger than his freakish power is his confidence.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied when I asked him what kind of numbers he could put up in a full major league season, “but if I stay healthy I feel like I have a chance to be something like the MVP and win the Triple Crown, and I can be on the All-Star team.”

“Wait a minute,” I told the man who hit .269 last year. “You could hit for a high enough average to win the Triple Crown?”

“Yeah, I can hit like .320,” he said.

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Now you get a glimpse of why Sano could be The Next Big Thing in baseball. He is a mountain of a man (6'4", and, according to one team official, “kindly” listed at 260 pounds on the official roster) with an infectious, fun-loving personality and drawing-card, stay-in-your-seats-for-every-at-bat kind of power. Think Mark McGwire (Sano’s extension on his swing is reminiscent of McGwire’s), David Ortiz and Stanton. Sano could be the successor in an amazing recent line of instant impact hitters, tracing from Stanton to Bryce Harper to Mike Trout to Manny Machado to Kris Bryant to Carlos Correa, all of whom hit at least 20 home runs at age 23 or younger in the previous three seasons.

“The crazy thing about Miguel is that he makes the kind of in-game adjustments you don’t see from young players,” said Torii Hunter, his teammate last year and now an instructor in Minnesota's camp. “He is so smart. Last year he was 22 and he’d get a 2–0 changeup and just spit on it. He’d stay off a down-and-away slider off the plate, make the next one get over the plate and flip it into rightfield. I’ve only seen two hitters that young make in-game adjustments like I saw Miguel make last year: Mike Trout and Joe Mauer.”

Sano is a quick adapter. In 2011, at age 18, the Dominican-born Sano was playing in Elizabethton, Tenn., where he lived with a host family and spoke little English—and still slugged .637. He is one of 13 children and feels an obligation to provide for his extended family. He took English lessons in the Dominican Republic last winter. (He aced this entire interview in English, leaving as superfluous the club translator who stood at the ready.) And after living in a Minneapolis hotel last year following his midseason debut, this year he will live in an apartment with his wife, sister, mother, father, brother and cousin.

Then again, the worst-case scenario is that Sano could be a high-strikeout machine who can’t play rightfield and doesn’t live up to expectations. Last year, he became only the third player to whiff more than 100 times in less than half a season, joining Brett Wallace of the 2013 Astros and George Springer of the '14 Astros.

“I can’t hit a home run if I never swing the bat,” he said. “I hit a home run when the pitcher makes a mistake, and sometimes the pitcher makes a nasty pitch. This is baseball.”

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The punchouts can be mitigated by the power. After all, Trout, the best player in baseball, whiffed a league-high 184 times in 2014, and nobody complained. The bigger issue is whether Sano's size prevents him from becoming a decent outfielder. The Twins weren’t happy that he reported to camp carrying so much weight. “There are some red flags about a young player dealing with early success,” said one team source. “When was the last time you saw somebody play the outfield at more than 260 pounds? [Greg] Luzinski?”

“He’s surprisingly athletic,” said Hunter, who works with Sano in the outfield every day at 8 a.m. “He’s at least 260, 265 and 6'4", so he’s got a big frame. I told him, ‘Look, you’ve got to lose weight to play out here. You can play the position at 240, 245 and still have your power.’ But you know, he’s like a lot of young players, he thinks he needs the weight to have his power. But I know this, he has the kind of power you can’t teach. It’s sick. It’s the power we need.”

Sano was signed as a shortstop, moved to third base, missed the 2014 season because of Tommy John surgery and played primarily as a designated hitter last year. Now he is transitioning to rightfield to replace Hunter.

“We thought about [moving third baseman Trevor] Plouffe or Mauer,” manager Paul Molitor said, “but Miguel is only 22. I believe it’s easier to move the younger player. Right now we’re looking at a few pieces to fall in place for us. We don’t really have a prototypical leadoff hitter, but [Brian] Dozier is comfortable there. Sano is not your prototypical No. 3 hitter yet, but he’s there now.”

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If the pieces fit as Molitor hopes, the Twins will start a former Korea Baseball Organization veteran at DH (29-year-old Byung-ho Park) and an entire outfield that 10 months ago had never played a day in the big leagues (leftfielder Eddie Rosario, centerfielder Byron Buxton and Sano). The early signs on Sano in the outfield are mixed; it’s just too soon to tell, and it will not be a quick transformation. The last big-bodied infielder to move to the outfield, Hanley Ramirez, was a bust when he tried to do so for the Red Sox last year.

“The most difficult play is the ball hit right over my head,” Sano said. “The line drive hit over my head is difficult because I want to make my first step in to get it. Torii tells me I need to freeze. First read the ball, then go get it.”

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Back to the math: Ordinary players just don’t step into the big leagues and smash the baseball the way Sano did last year, when he posted a .916 OPS at age 22. Only six other hitters ever broke into the big leagues (minimum 80 games) at such a young age with such a high OPS. It’s a rather elite group: Joe DiMaggio in 1936, Ted Williams and Charlie Keller in '39, Frank Robinson in '56, Albert Pujols in 2001 and Puig in '13.

Puig is the cautionary tale. He looked like one of those transcendent, young impact hitters when he first arrived (batting .407 in his first 34 games, .329 in his first 156), but then he gained weight, broke down, lost focus and has not approached that level since (.262 in his past 175 games). Puig hasn’t figured out a professional approach that serves him well over the grind of a full season. His career monthly batting averages decline without exception from May, bottoming out at .249 in September.

Stanton, the Marlins' 26-year-old superstar, is the Twins’ preferred comp for Sano. Stanton’s first-year numbers in 100 games at age 20 in 2010 (.259/.326/.507, 22 homers, 59 RBIs) are comparable, if a bit inferior, to Sano’s debut (.269/.385/.530, 18, 52). At 22, Stanton won a slugging title and smashed 37 home runs. At 25, as the definitive franchise player, he signed a $325 million contract.

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The complex math suggests Sano is headed toward the Puig model in 2016. The ZiPS projection, for instance, has Sano ticketed for 26 home runs, 76 RBIs and an .828 OPS. That 88-point decline in OPS would be the biggest among the other six players who debuted at 22 with a .916 OPS—worse than the previous biggest falloff, the 62-point drop by Puig.

Maybe the math knows something about those strikeouts, or the .241 batting average last September. But the math definitely doesn’t know about Sano’s big personality and confidence. It doesn’t know how Twins fans quickly made him a huge fan favorite, as much for his smile as for the kind of power they haven’t seen in Minnesota since Harmon Killebrew almost half a century ago. It doesn’t know that he welcomes the responsibility and attention.

“Now it’s my turn to take care of my family,” Sano said. “I want to be one of the best players in MLB. My goals are to stay healthy and win a World Series with the Minnesota Twins.”

MVP, Triple Crown, one of the best players in baseball, a World Series title … I tell Sano it seems as if he’s heaping more expectations on himself, more than even those 18 homers in half a season created last year. He smiled at me in the most natural, unconcerned way. It was a look that made the idea of him as The Next Big Thing more possible.

“It’s something special,” he said, and pounded his heart. “God blessed me with something special. Now it’s my responsibility to take care of my family, take care of my teammates and help this team in the playoffs. That’s why I’m talking like this.”

2. Another Royal find?

The Royals have been terrific at buying low on veteran players and getting a positive return (Chris Young, Kris Medlen, Kendrys Morales, etc.) Asked to name potential under-the-radar payoffs this year, manager Ned Yost mentioned outfield Travis Snider and pitcher Dillon Gee, both in camp on non-roster invitations. Now he can add another potential find: non-roster pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, who hit 93 mph with his sinker last week, the first time he has thrown that hard since having shoulder surgery in 2009.

Wang, who won 19 games in both 2006 and '07 for the Yankees, worked on improving his mechanics over the winter. Specifically, he generates much more power from his glutes and lower half and gets the baseball into a more powerful loaded position (the arm creating an angle of no more than 90 degrees). The result is not just better velocity but also improved health. He feels so good he no longer ices his arm after throwing.

3. Camp notes

•​ Count Dozier, the Twins' second baseman, among the smart hitters who are making swing path adjustments—the counterattack to shifts. Dozier never has been a good opposite-field hitter; in four big-league seasons, he has averaged only 10 opposite-field hits per year, batting .179 the few times he actually hits the ball to rightfield. But Dozier has been peppering the right side with hits this spring and looks much more comfortable using the whole field.

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•​ Keep your eye on Orioles prospect Hunter Harvey, who is only 21, has made only 25 minor-league starts and has never pitched above A ball but has the best arm in Baltimore's camp. Finally healthy, the 2013 first-round pick is not likely to make the Opening Day roster (because of starting his service-time clock and innings limits), but he has been so impressive with his stuff and mound presence that the Orioles now see him with a higher ceiling than Kevin Gausman. Harvey has been so electric that it brings to mind a spring training story of 1998, when Angels manager Terry Collins, after watching 21-year-old Kerry Wood (who was ticketed for the minors) throw for the Cubs, told Chicago manager Jim Riggelman, “Congratulations.” Said Riggleman, “For what?” Said Collins, “If you’ve got five starters better than that guy, you’re going to the World Series.” The Cubs brought up Wood after 11 games and won the wild card with 90 wins, 13 of them credited to Wood.

•​ Outfield defense will be a problem for Baltimore. The Orioles are sacrificing defense because they were so desperate to land the lefthanded bat of Pedro Alvarez, but his signing means Mark Trumbo will be forced to play mostly in rightfield. Said one scout, “He proved he couldn’t play the outfield for [three] other organizations. What makes anybody think he can do it now? [Centerfielder] Adam Jones was worn down at the end of last season. With that outfield, the same thing is going to happen.” Jones, who might be flanked by Trumbo and either Nolan Reimold or Hyun-soo Kim, hit .227 over August and September last year.

•​ After integrating Pilates in his workouts and loosening the grip on his slider and two-seam fastball, the Mets' Noah Syndergaard looks like an even more imposing beast than he was last year. And his maturity is noticeable. At this time last year, he was getting reprimanded by veterans Bobby Parnell and David Wright for eating lunch in the clubhouse during a game and silently wearing the needling from Matt Harvey about his stiffness. He has flipped that profile to an outgoing and confident second-year player.

•​ Here is one scout’s view of the Angels: “Other than Mike Trout, there is almost no athleticism there. [Rightfielder Kole] Calhoun is a good player, but it’s sad to see how little they have around Mike."

The Astros are the inverse of the Angels when it comes to athleticism. “Houston is the team that scares me because of their speed, power and youth,” said one veteran GM. “They’re the one team that can beat you with talent, especially if that kid shortstop [Correa] is Alex Rodriguez right out of the box, which he just might be.”

•​ No team needs a better start than the perennially soft Nationals, now under new manager Dusty Baker. And the schedule maker has obliged. Washington plays its first 22 games against non-playoff teams in 2015: the Braves, Phillies, Marlins and Twins.

•​ Outfielder Reed Johnson is in Washington's camp as a non-roster player, extending his unofficial union record for longest major league career without a multi-year contract. He has played 14 straight years on one-year deals.

•​ One of the eye-opening pitchers in Cubs camp has been Trevor Cahill, a reclamation project under pitching coach Chris Bosio. Since his first bullpen session, Cahill has been throwing 96 mph with heavy sink—similar to how he ended last year. Cahill reported to camp in better shape and still wants to start, though he seems ticketed for bullpen duty and starts as needed.

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