Chattanooga Lookouts fans had to believe they were looking at future big-league superstars.
There was no reason to think otherwise. Byron Buxton, from Appling County High School in Georgia, had been ranked baseball’s overall best prospect in 2014 by Baseball America. Miguel Sano, who had signed as a 16-year-old out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, was ranked No. 6 overall.
In 2015, Buxton slipped to No. 2 behind Cubs prospect Kris Bryant while Sano ranked 13th, still impressive stuff. That’s how they entered the 2015 season with the Class AA Lookouts.
Both Buxton and Sano had already made respectable stops in Tennessee before they reached Chattanooga, playing for the Elizabethton Twins in the Appalachian League. Buxton batted .286 in 21 games in Elizabethton in 2012 after being the Twins’ first-round draft pick that year. Sano had been in Elizabethton the year before, batting .292 in 66 games, with 20 home runs and 59 RBIs.
Entering the 2015 season, they looked like the future of big-league baseball. So what happened?
As the Twins head into the 2019 season, questions abound as to whether Buxton and Sano, or either one of them, can emerge as the player he was expected to be. Buxton has shown some exciting moments this spring that is getting attention, but the questions linger. Neither Buxton nor Sano has been anywhere near the impact player anticipated.
In that 2015 season, Buxton made the Southern League All-Star team and was promoted to the major-league Twins before the season ended. Sano made the Southern League All-Star team too, was promoted, and got his first major-league hit by July 2.
After that, the big-league numbers did not look so good.
Buxton batted .209 in 46 games in 2015 with the big-league Twins, then only .225 in 92 games in 2016, .253 in 140 games in 2017 and .156 in 90 games last season. Sano began well enough in the majors in 2015, then hit only .236 with 25 home runs in 2016, .264 with 28 home runs in 2017 and .199 with 13 home runs last season.
There have been flashes of each living up to potential. Buxton won a Gold Glove Award in 2017. But neither seemed to be able to step up to the level of what was expected.
Injuries have been a factor. For Sano, weight gain has been a problem. Last year, Buxton suffered migraine headaches and a broken toe. Sano suffered hamstring and knee injuries.
A few days ago, Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune recounted how new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli made personal visits and special cases out of visiting Buxton and Sano this off-season. For Buxton, it meant meeting him in Atlanta. For Sano, Baldelli traveled to the Dominican Republic. The meetings can be viewed as a fresh start, a way to put troubles behind, but even at that, the truth can be found in Miller’s quote from Twins general manager Thad Levine.
“2019 is going to be a defining season for both these guys,” Levine told Miller. “They’re at a crossroads in their careers. We believe they are going to vault forward, and we want to do everything we can to help them.”
Each is still only 25 years old.
This year, Buxton has gained weight and adjusted his swing.
“I just wrote off last year as a lost year,” Buxton told Miller.
He hit two home runs in his first five at-bats this spring.
Betsy Helfand of the St. Paul Pioneer Press quoted left fielder Eddie Rosario saying of Buxton, “His swing looks beautiful.”
The Twins finished 78-84 last year, 13 games behind AL Central Division winner Cleveland.
As they start the season, Buxton, with his hot start this spring, is expected to be the center fielder. Sano is expected to be the third baseman. With fresh starts and new reasons for optimism, each appears ready for a new day.
One way or another, this defining season could result in a new definition of each player’s road to stardom.
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