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A first chance and a final chance

Kirilloff’s injury and the trade of Cruz create opportunities for Rooker and Sanó

MLB: SEP 08 Twins at Cardinals - Game 2
Miguel Sano (22) celebrates with Brent Rooker (50) after a two-run home run. Can they make this a regular thing?
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When trades are made, or season-ending injuries occur, most of the attention and discussion is focused (rightfully) on the player(s) injured or being traded to different teams. But, the trade or the injured list placement is just the first domino in the string of transactions that follow. Anytime a player moves out, a new player moves in, and someone gets a new opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

This week, the Twins have two such cases: their trade of designated hitter Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay for two pitching prospects and the news earlier this week of first baseman / outfielder Alex Kirilloff’s season ending for surgery to repair his injured wrist. Both players have been fixtures in the lineup this season and the plate appearances they took are now up for grabs for the rest of the season.

At least initially, it seems those open spots at first base and designated hitter will be used to give Brent Rooker and Miguel Sanó chances to secure their places in the club’s future plans.

The two sluggers share some similarities. They both belong to the oft-maligned right handed batting, right handed throwing corner defenders demographic and they both have boom or bust offensive profiles that offer lots of power and lots of strikeouts.

They also come into this opportunity from very different career positions. Rooker, a 26-year old rookie, is looking for his first extended chance to show he can stick in the major leagues. Sanó, 28 years old and in his 7th MLB season, is now a disappointing former top prospect who might be staring down his final chance to remain in the Twins’ long term plans.

Brent Rooker

Rooker was recalled to assume Cruz’s spot on the active roster and was immediately penciled into the designated hitter spot in the lineup. His two previous stints in the majors were short lived. Last season, the former 35th overall pick out of Mississippi State debuted in early September and gave the Twins a needed jolt at the plate, batting .316 / .381 / .579 with a home run and 2 doubles. Unfortunately, his season ended after just 7 games and 21 plate appearances when an errant fastball from Cleveland’s Zach Plesac broke his forearm.

This season, Rooker started strong in Spring Training before fading as the regular season drew close. He was (somewhat surprisingly) optioned to AAA to begin the season, but his stay at the alternate training site was brief. He was recalled for the second game of the season following Josh Donaldson being placed on the injured list for a hamstring injury suffered on Opening Day.

Once again, Rooker’s chance was cut short by injury. After just three games, he was placed on the injured list with a back injury suffered in the outfield. Though he recovered quickly and rejoined the Twins on April 20, he went just 2-19 at the plate over the next 10 days. By April 29, Rooker was carrying a 3 for 29 season line, with just a single walk against 13 strikeouts. By then, Donaldson was back in the lineup everyday — limiting Rooker’s at bats — and the AAA season set to get underway in early May. On April 29, Rooker was optioned back to St. Paul to get regular at bats and more seasoning.

There, he has done pretty much exactly what was expected of him. For the season with the Saints, Rooker has slashed .239 / .362 / .546 (.908 OPS, .386 wOBA) in 265 plate appearances. His statistics this season illustrate what he brings — he leads the entire Twins organization in home runs (20), his 19 AAA homers are tied for the most at that level, and his 80 AAA strikeouts are tied for 9th-most.

With a combined .262 / .358 / .512 line in 1,375 plate appearances across 320 minor league games, there is little left for Rooker to prove on the farm. At this point, he mostly is what he is going to be. It’s time to find out if what he is will be good enough to produce at the game’s highest level.

Miguel Sanó

Sanó’s three true outcomes profile has put Twins fans on a roller coaster throughout his seven MLB seasons. Prior to this season, he had settled into a strange every other season pattern — 2015, 2017, and 2019 were good; 2016, 2018, and 2020 were bad. If the pattern would hold, 2021 figured to be another good year.

But nothing of the sort has happened. Over 74 games and 278 plate appearances this season, Sanó has a .202 / .284 / .431 (.715 OPS, .309 wOBA) batting line and 36.3% strikeout rate. Those numbers had him mostly relegated to platoon duty behind Kirilloff the past several weeks.

Sanó finds himself in a make or break position because numbers like the above are mostly representative of the hitter he has been since the 2018 season started. In 303 games and 1,221 PAs over the past four seasons he’s produced a combined .218 / .305 / .482 (.787 OPS, .332 wOBA) line that has come with a 38.1% strikeout rate.

Despite the ugliness of those numbers — his strikeout rate is the highest and his batting average is 7th-lowest among 213 qualified hitters over the past 4 seasons — the comprehensive offensive value produced is still slightly better than league average (.317 wOBA), thanks in large part to his extra base power production. Sanó has 235 hits the past four seasons and 134 (57%) of them have gone for extra bases, including 75 for home runs. His percentage of hits that go for extra bases is the highest rate of any qualified hitter over the past four seasons.

Nonetheless, his performance has been far lower than was expected when he was a prospect and than the level he established in his first three MLB seasons. From 2015-2017, Sanó produced .254 / .348 /.496 (.844 OPS, .359 wOBA) and 71 home runs over 1,313 PAs. That kind of performance from a player at 22, 23, and 24 years old made it seem he was on his way to delivering on his enormous prospect potential.

Kirilloff’s emergence (despite playing through a torn wrist ligament), Sanó’s sustained decline, and the Twins’ farm system being heavy on bat first, corner position player prospects (like Rooker) make Sanó’s future in Minnesota very murky. After 2021, Sanó has one more guaranteed season left on the contract extension he signed after the 2019 season. The cost of that season to the Twins is $9.25-million and they hold a club option valued at $14-million for 2023 that (right now) will almost certainly be bought out for $2.75-million.

Sanó is going to get an opportunity over the next two months to get right with the bat because letting him play consistently is in his own and the Twins’ best interest. But it will probably be his final chance to prove himself in Minnesota.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.