Sano Slowed Down: The Impact of Losing the Slugging Third Baseman

It was only a matter of time before the Twins were dealt their first major injury of the season. And unfortunately it is once again coming at the expense of one of the most promising players on the team: Miguel Sano. Miguel actually started Spring Training in a walking boot and never made an appearance on the diamond. There was hopes that this would be a temporary setback after cutting his foot celebrating his team’s Dominican League Championship in Januarry, but after multiple procedures on his right achilles, it is now certain Sano will miss the next 4-6 weeks. This means he won’t be on the field Opening Day for the Twins and probably for the first month of the season.

This is a disappointment for both the Twins and Sano. Sano is coming off of a forgetful 2018, where he battled injuries, off the field issues, and slashed .199 / .281 / .398 in 71 games. Needless to say, Sano needs this year to prove that he truly is all the Twins hoped for, yet he probably won’t get that chance until May. Meanwhile, the Twins’ lineup depth will be put to the test immediately. This season, the Opening Day lineup was projected to have Nelson Cruz, CJ Cron, Eddie Rosario, and Sano. Last year the first three each had at least a .340 wOBA (weighted on-base average), and a healthy Sano would have made this Twins lineup seriously intimidating.

With Sano gone for the first month, that opens up another roster spot Opening Day, and there are plenty of guys fighting for it. Let’s break down a potential 25 man roster for the Twins. For the sake of simplicity, I am not going to go through the pitching staff, but I will assume the Twins will start the season with 12 pitchers, as they likely won’t need a 5th starter until a couple weeks into the season. Given this, they will have 13 spots for batters, meaning four bench players. I would assume the starting lineup will look something like this:

  1. Kepler RF
  2. Polanco SS
  3. Rosario LF
  4. Cruz DH
  5. Cron 1B
  6. Schoop 2B
  7. Gonzalez 3B
  8. Castro C
  9. Buxton CF
Marwin Gonazlez will be in his first season with the Twins in 2019.
Photo Credit:

In this case, Marwin Gonzalez is the starting third baseman, and which I think is the general consensus of Baldelli and staff. Marwin has the best track record among available players and he was signed for this very reason: positional flexibility. From 2014 to 2018, he had a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus – average is 100) of 110, 111, 89, 144, 104. 2016 and 2017 seem to be outlier years, so I would expect a wRC+ much closer to 2014-2015 or 2018. Playing better down the stretch in 2018 (134 wRC+ in the 2nd half of the season), he did show that 2017 may not have been a fluke.

For the bench spots, the Twins will obviously need a backup catcher. The most obvious choice would be 2018 starting catcher Mitch Garver. But that doesn’t mean the people don’t want to see new cult hero, La Tortuga, Willians Astudillo. Normally it doesn’t make sense to have three catchers on the roster, but Astudillo isn’t your normal catcher. He is a fan-favorite multi-positional contact-efficient stud, and definitely worth a roster spot (read more about Astudilllo here). Having played all but RF and SS last year (yes, he did pitch one inning), Astudillo would offer the Twins incredible positional flexibility, which would be even more valuable now that Gonzalez is likely the everyday third baseman. Besides catcher, third base was the position Astudillo played the most innings at last year, so I see his playing time increasing from the Sano injury.

Willians Astudillo will hopefully make the starting roster with his positional flexibility.
Photo Credit: Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

Assuming the Twins have Garver and Astudillo on the Opening Day roster, that likely leaves two more spots for positional players on the bench. One player needs to be a primary outfielder and the other probably an infielder. The most obvious outfielder, and the most likely, is Jake Cave. Having played 91 games last year, Cave looks to be right on the line of fourth outfielder / average starting centerfielder. In 309 at bats he had a wRC+ of 108 with 13 home runs, but struck out 33.0% of the time and walked at a rate of just 5.5%. Other promising signs of Cave’s development is that he has a hard hit rate of 37.6% and a soft hit rate of a mere 8.6% (according to Statcast data). This means when he makes contact, he is typically making good contact. Now the Twins just need him to make consistent contact.

With no other outfielders really fighting for the bench spot, Cave should have this wrapped up and get a good amount of playing time in the first month, especially with Gonzalez relegating his time around the infield. This leaves one more roster spot, and I think it will come down to Ehire Adrianza, Ronald Torreyes, and Tyler Austin. Austin would provide the most power by far of the three choices, but someone who can play more than first base will likely make the team. Both Torreyes and Adrianza play all around the infield, but Adrianza has been having a great spring so far and has the experience and chemistry with the team already, so he is the likely favorite. Plus, Ehire does not have any minor league options, so unlike Torreyes, he can not be sent back down to the minor leagues without being subjected to waivers. With that, we have our four bench players: Garver, Astudillo, Cave, and Adrianza.

Despite having good positional depth, none of these players could have as much of an impact in the lineup as Sano. Some of his top Statcast measures are listed below:

Source: Baseball Savant

In 2017, according to Baseball Savant, Sano had elite exit velocity and hard hit percentage, with well above average expected wOBA and expected slugging percentage compared to MLB average. This is not a fluke either; as in 2016 Sano had very similar exit velocity and hard hit percentage. Although he did not play enough in 2018 to qualify in comparison to the MLB, Sano has a career exit velocity of 92.2 (MLB average of 87.4 in 2018) and career hard hit percentage of 47.9% (MLB average of 34.1%). These career metrics compare very closely to the Khris Davis’ 2018 season (92.4 exit velocity & 47.3 hard hit %), who led the MLB with 48 home runs last season.

Source: Baseball Savant

Does this mean I think Sano could hit 40+ home runs in a season? Well, to be honest, yes. If he were to stay healthy, I think Sano’s exit velocity and hard hit percentage could make him a perennial candidate for the home run crown. Obviously, injuries and strikeouts have prevented him from reaching this accomplishment, but it is certainly not out of the question. In light of these stats, I do not believe any replacement of Sano for the first month of the season will be able to match his potential offensive production. Surprisingly enough, there may not be as much of a defensive upgrade with his replacements as most people would initially believe.

In 2018, Sano played 476.1 innings at third base. In this time he had -6 DRS (defensive runs saved), 22 OOZ (out of zone plays made), and a UZR/150 (the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games) of -7.4. This does not portray Sano’s defense very well, but internal options aren’t much of improvements. Marwin Gonzalez, having only played 576.2 innings at third in his career, has -1 DRS, 30 OOZ, and a UZR/150 of -6.7. As you can see, Gonzalez has been marginally better in his career defensively at third base than Sano was in 2018. The other options at third base are Astudillo (-1 DRS, 1 OOZ, and -66.6 UZR/150 in 44.0 career innings at third base) and Ehire Adrianza (3 DRS, 20 OOZ, and 14.5 UZR/150 in 310.2 career innings at third base). Adrianza would clearly be the best defender at third, but is likely to get the least amount of playing time due to his weak offensive production (.287 wOBA and 78 wRC+ in his career).

As you can probably see, there is no one clear answer as to how the Twins should fill this third base hole. What they will probably end up doing is mixing and matching until Baldelli finds something that works. Being in this predicament is obviously not how the Twins wanted to begin the season, but if this is all that goes wrong until Opening Day, Twins fans should consider themselves lucky.

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