Sometimes, a player soars to superstardom almost immediately. Alex Rodriguez did it. So did Buster Posey, Justin Verlander, Albert Pujols, and many others. Sometimes, transcendent talent pays off right away.
Other times, it can take a while. Brandon Phillips was a highly-touted second-round pick who got traded before he could make it to the majors. He couldn't hit a lick the first time Cleveland gave him an extended look in the Show, managed mere cups of coffee in the big leagues in the next two seasons, and finally got traded for the bottom-of-the-barrel player to be named later, just as the 2006 season was about to start. It wasn't until his age-26 season, half a decade after making his major league debut, that Phillips finally started to blossom with the Reds. Four Gold Gloves and three All-Star Games would follow.
Buxton was the second player taken in the 2012 draft, signaling the magnitude of his tools and skills. Here was a player with the potential to be a Gold Glove center fielder, a prolific base stealer, and a dangerous hitter with emerging gap power. Those skills came together in 2017. That year, Buxton was a dynamo in center, saving more runs than any other player at that position according to Baseball Info Solutions. He swiped an incredible 29 bases in 30 tries. And after a terrible first half of the season at the plate, he exploded after the break, batting a cool .300/.347/.546, with 11 home runs, eight doubles, and five triples in the second half.
- 2018 Result: 78-84, second place in AL Central
- Key free agents: Logan Morrison, Logan Forsythe, Ervin Santana, Robbie Grossman, Matt Belisle
- Needs: Relief pitching, starting pitching, first base/DH
Then 2018 happened. Buxton hit the disabled list at the start of the season with migraines, then broke his toe while on a rehab assignment. He tried to play through the toe injury, but hit .188 in 17 games, and got sent to the minors. Then he hurt his wrist and spent a bunch more time on the shelf. Then the Twins kept him in the minors until September, likely in an attempt to gain an extra year of controllable service time.
Sano found success much quicker in the big leagues -- right away, in fact. The bruising slugger debuted in 2015 and started raking, batting a huge .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers in 80 games, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting despite playing just half the season in the Show. So far, that's been the pinnacle of his young career. While Sano boosted his counting stats with more games played, his rate stats dropped sharply in 2016 (.236/.319/.462), rebounded some in 2017 (.264/.352/.507), then fell off a cliff in 2018 (.199/.281/.398). He played in just 116 games in 2016 and 114 games in 2017, before injuries completely kneecapped him last season: He had offseason surgery to insert a metal rod in his leg, was out of shape when he returned, suffered a hamstring injury along the way, then shockingly got demoted all the way to A-ball in June.
Unlike Buxton, Sano's one and only plus tool is his bat. He's far heavier than he should be, has no business playing anywhere on the diamond (except maybe first base, with Joe Mauer retired), and runs like molasses. He's going to sink or swim with his bat.
Thing is, Sano might very well swim, and so might Buxton. The great baseball analyst Ron Shandler used to write that once a player displays a skill, he owns it. That means Sano still owns the ability to blast a home run every 18 trips to the plate and to walk in nearly one-sixth of his plate appearances, the way he did in his rookie season. Still just 25 years old, he could very well reemerge as one of the most dangerous mashers in the league, someone who works deep counts, hits the ball a mile when he connects, and otherwise gladly takes a free pass. Very few hitters can hit a bomb like this, much less be a threat to do so every time he strides to the plate:
The prognosis is more optimistic for Buxton, who merely needs to hold his own at the plate to be a star. His defense in center is out of this world and he's also been clocked as the fastest runner in all of baseball, making him immensely valuable before he ever even strides to the plate. While he'll likely never develop anything close to Sano's patience at bat, his hand-eye coordination and emerging power could still fuel stronger batting averages and gaudy extra-base hit totals. Also just 25 years old, Buxton still has time to consolidate his tools and become a full-blown star.
If both Sano and Buxton play to the best of their abilities and stay healthy for a full season, that alone could add 10 or more wins to the Twins' ledger. The good news is that the Twins have upside sprinkled all over their roster. Eight of the nine projected starters in the 2019 lineup are 29 or younger. The same goes for the rotation, which is topped by exciting 24-year-old righty Jose Berrios and features additional potential in the form of post-Tommy John surgery right-hander (and former strikeout fiend) Michael Pineda.
The Twins have plenty of money to work with too, with Mauer having just completed the final year of his megadeal and the current payroll projection for the 2019 opening day roster sitting at a modest $78 million and change. Minnesota tried to parlay free agency into another playoff appearance in 2018, picking up breakout power hitter Logan Morrison and capable righty Lance Lynn. Spin the free-agent wheel a thousand times and you'll never hit bad luck like that again: Morrison collapsed to a .186 batting average, while Lynn pumpkined his way to a 5.10 ERA before the Twins shipped him to New York.
Minnesota already bought low on 2017 All-Star Jonathan Schoop, on a one-year, $7.5 million deal. There will be plenty of other bargain-hunting opportunities as the offseason wears on, with the Twins' bullpen needs likely to be supremely easy to address, given that this might be the deepest free-agent class we've seen since Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally brought a century of owner hegemony to an end.
With the Twins' young roster poised to gain added reinforcements with budding talent like right-hander Fernando Romero on the rise, an 85-win run to the playoffs a recent memory, and a pair of dynamic talents in Buxton and Sano a threat to break out at any moment, and Cleveland reportedly shopping its ace(s) while facing question marks with its outfield, Minnesota could be one of the league's biggest surprises in 2019.