The Sano-Buxton Quandary

Ever since they appeared on Sports Illustrated’s cover in 2013, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton have been linked as the future of the Minnesota Twins. Buxton had been rated the top high-school prospect in the country, the ultimate five-tool player, and the powerful Sano had been featured in a documentary, Pelotero, about the grooming and scouting of prospects in the Dominican Republic. Their potential seemed unlimited. Eight years later, we are still talking of their potential.
Sano broke on the scene with more early success, finishing third in Rookie-of-the-Year voting despite playing only the second half of the 2015 season and making the All-Star team in 2017. Since that game his arc has gone down, not up. He has shown up for camp overweight, appeared uninterested and uncoachable, been injured and led the Majors in strikeouts in 2020. Although he came up as a shortstop, the Twins have tried him at third, rightfield and first base, while showing evidence that his best position would be DH. Buxton, by contrast, has been glorious in centerfield, even winning the Platinum Glove as the league’s top defensive player in 2017, the only year he has played more than 100 games. And that last fact is the rub. From broken tooth to broken pinkie to injured shoulder to injured hip to concussion to whatever, Buxton has been out as much as he’s been in. Until this year he was also a strikeout machine: his 30% K-rate was well below Sano’s 37% over their careers, but both were frequent black holes in the lineup. (For comparison, Max Kepler, no more a contact hitter, has an 18% strikeout rate; Jorge Polanco is 16%, and Luis Arraez is 9%.) Sano will drive you crazy by missing the same pitch, an outside slider, by a foot, while Buxton had the unappetizing habit of staring back at the pitcher as he returned to the dugout after his whiff. More frustrations: if Buxton would only learn to bunt he could raise his batting average by 20 points. Sano could do the same by hitting to all fields, instead of trying to pull every pitch into the upper deck in left.
For all the reasons above, Twins fans on the Strib blog have been screaming for years to trade either Buxton or Sano, or preferably both. That won’t happen, if only because of the risk, shown in letting go David Ortiz a while back, of either blossoming into a superstar elsewhere. But by keeping Buxton and Sano, the Twins are stuck with 2/9ths of a lineup that stubbornly refuses to reach its potential. By relying on Buxton, the Twins find themselves playing Major League games with Gilbert Celestino, at best a AA player, starting in center. By using Sano at first base, they are slowing the development of Nick Kiriloff, their most promising rookie. At DH he would be sidelining Nelson Cruz, their best hitter, and at third base he would take the place of Josh Donaldson, their highest-paid player. On the other hand, Sano has won more games for the Twins this year with his home runs than anyone else on the team. Of course, even with that contribution, the Twins haven’t won that many games. Unlike Sano, Buxton appears to have turned a corner at the plate this year: his strikeouts are down, his home runs are up, and his confidence level is obviously higher. In years past, Sano and Buxton were both mistake-hitters and bad-ball swingers. This year, Buxton is no longer always in an 0-2 count and has shown variety in his hits, albeit still without bunts.
So, the Twins are faced with a dilemma. If they keep Buxton and Sano, there’s a good chance neither will ever get better, and between Sano’s strikeouts and Buxton’s injuries the Twins will be weighed down with their big contracts and an increasingly tepid fan base. When you play rookies, fans can at least project and dream; when you watch Sano flail at pitches with the bases loaded you get dejected. But if you let them go, and either has the season that was projected for them in 2013, what will that reaction be? I’d say the Twins front office has about a 25% chance of getting this right, and I’m glad it’s not my decision.

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