By JESSE TEMPLE
BELOIT, Wis. So much pure, raw, God-given talent radiates from Miguel Sano's powerful body on the baseball diamond that it's understandably difficult for casual observers to focus their eyes anywhere else, even hours before game time.
As he whips throws across the field from third base in the afternoon sunlight and later bombs baseballs over the fence during batting practice with ease, it quickly becomes apparent that this gift is something special. He is the sort of wunderkind that comes along so seldom that the Minnesota Twins committed a 3 million signing bonus to him as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.
For now, he is in between stops, a 19-year-old climbing the major league ladder with the Beloit Snappers, a Single-A Twins affiliate in the Midwest League. Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America rate Sano as the Twins' top farm system prospect. It is clear he won't be in Beloit past this season.
"He's the most talented baseball player I've ever seen in my life," Snappers infielder A.J. Pettersen said. "He throws the ball harder than anyone, hits the ball further than anyone. He's massive and he can run and field. Once he reaches his full potential, it's going to be scary. Twins fans will like him for a while, I think."
Beloit manager Nelson Prada isn't afraid to bestow upon Sano the highest baseball compliment, describing him as a five-tool player: that is, someone who hits for both average and power, has speed and baserunning skills, throwing abilities and fielding abilities. Many presume that Sano will crack the major league lineup during the 2014 season, by the time he's 21 years old.
"For me doing my player grading in 10 years, I think it's going to be the highest number that I'm going to put on my reports so far," Prada said.
If all that sounds like an awful lot of pressure placed squarely on one kid trying to hit the big time, Sano isn't letting on that he feels it.
"I'm real happy," Sano said through Prada, who served as his translator. "A couple years ago, I saw myself playing in the rookie league, going back to the Dominican, and now I'm playing Low A. I think I'm doing pretty good."
Through 34 games with Beloit, Sano hasn't disappointed. He is batting .298 with a Midwest League-leading 10 home runs. Last season, he belted 20 homers in 66 games during rookie ball.
Despite those impressive home run totals, Sano isn't quite the second coming of Roy Hobbs just yet. He has enough flaws in his game to keep him with Beloit all season.
Sano has grown so much in the last few years -- he is listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds but weighs roughly 233 pounds now -- that the Twins organization opted to move him from shortstop to third base. The transition has been difficult at times. This season, he already has committed a team-high 10 errors.
Prada said Sano doesn't anticipate grand balls at third base well enough and often rushes throws to first. He also spoke to Sano's impatience at the plate as an area that needs improvement.
Though Sano leads the league in home runs, he also is tied for the league lead in strikeouts with 40.
"Some days, he's a kid," Prada said. "He's 18, 19. Some days he goes 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, maybe he sits on the back of the dugout and feels bad about it. But it's always about the next day. I speak the same language and I can go out there and talk to him a little bit and explain that he's going to be back in the lineup and he can keep trying for the next day."
Sano tends to act his age on the field occasionally as well, sometimes to the detriment of the game.
During a contest against the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels last week, he hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth inning and admired his shot from the batter's box. He trotted around the bases and glared at the Kernels dugout when he touched home plate, leading to a brief benches-clearing incident.
All of those hitches, coupled with Sano playing his first full 140-game season of pro ball, are reasons the Twins organization will likely leave him in Beloit this season.
"They're not in a hurry to rush guys through the system," Snappers general manager Matthew Bosen said. "The general feeling in the office -- which has nothing to do what the Twins decide to do -- but what we feel from what we've seen is the younger guys usually stay here the whole year, even if they play well."
There are plenty of areas to improve for Sano, but his immense skill at such a young age is undeniable. His maturity on and off the diamond is sure to grow as well.
Sano turned 19 years old on Friday and spent the day in Peoria, Ill., taking an off day in the dugout with teammates before boarding a bus back to Beloit.
The thought of being away from home left Sano feeling reflective earlier in the week.
"I'm missing my family," Sano said. "I'm missing the time I spend at home. I'm going to miss my mom saying happy birthday, son. Stuff like that. But I'm trying to do stuff for myself and my family and that's part of the sacrifice."
All indications suggest the ultimate payoff for Sano's baseball career will be well worth the sacrifice.
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