FORT MYERS, Fla. Twins prospect Miguel Sano is a man among boys.
Not literally, of course. At just 18 years old, Sano is one of the youngest players in Minnesota's minor league camp this spring. Judging by his baby-faced appearance, you'd think he was perhaps 15.
But when Sano takes the field with the other Twins minor leaguers at the Lee County Sports Complex, he turns heads. Listed at 6-foot-3, Sano has the frame of a major leaguer. According to Jim Rantz, the Twins' senior director of minor league operations, Sano has put on 18 pounds since the end of last season and now weighs 243 pounds.
"He stands out," Rantz said.
Sano's well-built frame has so far translated to power on the baseball diamond, which is why Minnesota and several other teams took interest in Sano several years ago in his native Dominican Republic. In just 66 games with Elizabethton, the Twins' rookie ball team in the Appalachian League, Sano hit 20 homers, drove in 59 runs and batted .292.
Baseball America rates Sano as the top prospect in Minnesota's system and the 18th-best prospect in all of baseball. The Twins signed him as a 16-year-old in October of 2009, giving him a 3 million bonus. They're hoping that as Sano continues to develop and learn the game, he'll continue to hit for power as well as average.
"We've seen the power right from the get-go. That's his biggest asset is his power," Rantz said. "At his age, he's very aggressive with the bat. He's still learning the strike zone like most young players. He's got enough power to go either side, right or left. We look for him to continue to improve every year."
From his office in the team's minor league complex, Rantz points out a building that Sano hit with one of his towering home runs. The building is well beyond the left field fence, a long distance from home plate even for the Twins' major leaguers.
Yet while those who have kept an eye on Sano are intrigued by his power, the 18-year-old infielder insists going deep isn't his goal.
"When I go to take an at-bat, I don't think about hitting home runs," Sano said through his translator, Rafael Yanez. "I know that I have some power, but my mindset is to hit the ball well, focus pretty much to the opposite field."
The Twins expect Sano to start the season at Low-A Beloit, a level up from Elizabethton. In many ways, playing for the Snappers will be an adjustment for Sano. It will be his first full season of professional baseball. He'll be facing better pitching than he did in the Appalachian League. And he'll be living in Wisconsin, a long ways away both in distance and climate from the Dominican. But living away from his family and his hometown is something Sano has already had to adjust to.
"At the beginning, it was a little culture shock because the style of living in the Dominican Republic is really different than the states," he said. "But throughout the years, my third year with the organization, I've been able to adapt pretty well. I'm still learning."
He's still learning plenty about baseball, about America and about the English language. Sano spends some of his time after workouts reading books to learn English so he can better communicate with his teammates. As the infielders took fly balls during a drill earlier this week, Sano yelled out an important phrase: "I got it! I got it!"
The language gap is still a work in progress, but Sano is making strides just like he is on the field. When asked what position he would prefer to play, Sano didn't hesitate to give his answer in English.
"I want to play third base," he said.
The Twins moved Sano from shortstop to third base, where he'll play for now unless he continues to grow. Former Twin and Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor has been working with Sano like he does with many of Minnesota's players on his defense at third base.
"I've been working with him on the details of the position, like double play situations, men on second, bunting," Sano said. "Maybe going forward and trying to get the ball bare-handed, that kind of stuff, that I have to adjust to to be better at the position."
Sano's talent may still be raw, but his potential is vast. He'll likely draw crowds wherever he plays in Single-A this year, be it Beloit or perhaps Fort Myers later in the season.
He's still at least a few years away from playing the majors. At 18 years old, he could still grow, too. But if and when Sano finally puts on that Twins uniform as a big league player, it'll be the happy ending to a long journey from the Dominican Republic.
"My dream is to play in the big leagues, and also the dream of my mom and my family," Sano said. "I have to go step-by-step. As soon as I make it, I'm anxious for that because that's my dream. But I know that it's going to take some time."
The Twins hope it will be worth the wait.
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