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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Megan Ryan

With Sano returning, the Twins have decisions to make

To set the scene: Remember back to May 15, 2021. On that particular Saturday at Target Field, the Twins trailed Oakland for most of the game until Miguel Sano blasted a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to steal a 5-4 victory.

As Sano rounded the bases, he shouted into the void, "We're the best team in the world! Let's go!"

The Twins were not, in fact, the best team in the world at that point, at least numerically speaking. They were actually 13-24 and on their way to a playoff-less campaign. And for Sano, that home run was just his third of the season and raised his batting average to .127.

Audacious? Certainly. But if there's one vital characteristic Sano brings to the Twins, it's an unbridled confidence and carefree joy no matter how good or bad he and his team are faring.

"Regardless of how things are going, you know what you're going to get from him. He's a competitive guy. He goes out there. He plays hard. Plays through everything," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "… He's the kind of guy that you want on your team. I would always say that from the first day I met him until now. He's been a guy in that clubhouse that really does a lot for his teammates, and he does it with personality, too."

That's an important positive to weigh with the Twins on the precipice of what feels like a monumental decision. Before the Twins play Milwaukee on Tuesday, Baldelli will announce what Sano's future with the Twins is now that the 29-year-old first baseman is healed from an early May surgery to repair his torn left meniscus.

Sano hasn't played for the Twins since April 30, when he was hitting .093 with one home run and three RBI in 17 games. He hurt his knee celebrating a walk-off victory on a bizarre play, the second freak injury of his career — in 2019 he cut his right heel on metal steps to a stage while reveling in the Dominican Winter League Championship and missed the start of the Twins season.

Sano completed his minor league rehab assignment Saturday in St. Paul. He played 12 combined games with the rookie-level Florida Complex League and the Saints, hitting .348 in seven games with St. Paul, with three homers and 10 strikeouts in 26 plate appearances.

The Twins can reinstate him to the 40-man roster pretty easily, by transferring a sidelined player — like reliever Danny Coulombe — to the 60-day Injured List. To add Sano to the active roster, he'd push someone back to Class AAA, unless a player goes on the injured list.

Sano and the club also can agree on another rehab assignment if both feel his knee is not quite ready.

Or most drastically — and least likely — the Twins could designate him for assignment or release, almost surely ending his long tenure with the team.

The former American League All-Star has been with the Twins since signing as a 16-year-old in 2009 from his native Dominican Republic. He made his MLB debut in 2015 and was an All-Star in 2017 as a third baseman. He's been a fixture at first base after signing a three-year, $30 million deal in 2020, with the club having a $14 million option or a $3 million buyout in 2023.

But his offense has lacked consistency, and he's endured criticism on his fitness. And many players have stepped up in his absence.

At first base, the Twins used a platoon of Luis Arraez, Jose Miranda and Alex Kirilloff. Arraez has the best batting average in the league at .341. Miranda is hitting .305 through his past 40 games, with 29 RBI. Since June 17, Kirilloff is hitting .301 with 21 RBI. Miranda and Arraez can both play third, while Kirilloff also mans left field.

Other bench players bring valuable contributions. Kyle Garlick is a specialist at hitting left-handed pitchers. The Twins can't send Nick Gordon down without risking losing him on waivers, and Gordon is the backup for several positions, including center field and shortstop.

Gilberto Celestino is also a center field option — crucial given Byron Buxton's ongoing knee injury that keeps him from being an everyday starter — but Celestino's bat has cooled a bit, making him the most likely sacrifice to St. Paul — unless the Twins decide to drop a pitcher, which seems doubtful.

Baldelli has mentioned he's enjoyed the somewhat rare flexibility of having capable players on the bench, ready to pinch hit or run or shake up the outfield as needed late in games. Should Sano return and take one of the aforementioned players' spot, the manager won't have as much opportunity to tinker.

But when Sano is on, he's an asset — like in 2019, when he had a . 922 OPS with 34 home runs and 79 RBI in 105 games. That season, the Twins won the division and set a MLB record with 307 homers.

"He's a game-changing type of at-bat when he's swinging the bat the way that he can," Baldelli said. "I just want him to get to that point."

One last possibility involves Max Kepler. The right fielder took a pitch off the outside of his right foot in Sunday's game, which he left early. He wore a boot as he exited Comerica Park after the game, and Baldelli said Kepler would have more imaging done Monday; if he goes to the IL, a spot for Sano would open.

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