The Minnesota Twins, armed with a second-rate major league roster but the optimism that comes with the best farm system in baseball, were struck with a blow to that confidence on Saturday morning when the news came down that third base prospect Miguel Sano would need to undergo Tommy John surgery, according to Mike Berardino of St. Paul Pioneer Press. Sano will miss the entire 2014 season.
I've talked a lot about timetables and when prospects will arrive in the majors on this site in the past few weeks, but instances like this are a part of what makes that a difficult task. Just this week, I predicted that we could have seen Sano in the majors by the end of this season. This obviously changes that.
Tommy John surgery is different for position players than it is for pitchers with a generally shorter recovery time. Berardino reports that the Twins have put Sano on an early eight-month timetable to return to action, though he can swing a bat after four (although not in games). Sano won't play in any regular season games this season, but he could get back in time for the Arizona Fall League in October (which would be seven months of recovery time if he has surgery in the next few weeks) to perhaps serve as a DH and make up for some of the at-bats he'll lose this season.
We've seen players, and even prospects, come back from Tommy John surgery in the past without lingering effects, so this shouldn't have any affect on Sano's long-term prospect status. Luckily, he's young enough that, even with a year off, he should still return to the field before his 22nd birthday. Youth really is a blessing.
For the Twins, however, this could throw a wrench into their plans for the future. Sano is still very much a part of them, but when that future begins may now be later than expected.
Sano was likely going to join the major league club towards the end of the year. Among the top prospects in the Twins system, the upper echelon of which include the game's top overall prospect Byron Buxton and top pitching prospect Alex Meyer, Sano was the closest to making an impact at the top level. Buxton likely won't be ready until sometime next season, but Meyer now could be the first of the triumvirate to get the call. Sano will need to make up for lost time in the minor leagues when he returns, but could jump straight to Triple-A. The earliest we can realistically expect Sano in the majors now is by summer of 2015.
Meyer could start the season in either Double or Triple-A (he made 13 Double-A starts last season), but could also be ready for the majors by the end of 2014 (as I predicted earlier this week). Sano's injury obviously won't have any affect on Meyer's readiness, but it may impact when the Twins want to unleash him on the American League.
The key for a team like the Twins, who typically reside in the bottom third of league payroll and have lost many young players to free agency, is to time the windows of opportunity for their top prospects to coincide with one another. This will give the team a chance to have the most productive, cheap talent at once.
That window was thought to be starting during the second half of this season with Sano and Meyer, with Buxton perhaps being ready by next June. Sano's injury bumps him back to at least the second half of next season, and it wouldn't be crazy for the Twins to do the same with Meyer.
The Twins will only be able to hold Meyer off for so long if he continues to have the same level of minor league success that he's had thus far, but there is now little incentive (other than fan base happiness and ticket sales) to give him too mich time in the majors this season. This is not going to be a good season for the Twins, and wasting too much of Meyer's service time on it would be poor service clock management. A few September starts to get his feet wet won't kill anybody, but if he's up for too long, it will be difficult to justify holding him back past next year's super two deadline. Calling him up this season for any extended period of time would now put his arbitration/free agency schedule a year ahead of that of Buxton and Sano.
Had Sano been able to join him, it would have been a clear attempt at preparing for a more competitive team in 2015, one that, along with the addition of Buxton, would have been able to take productive steps in the right direction. Much like the injury to Matt Harvey did to the Mets timetable for this season, Sano's injury pushes everything back roughly one year for the Twins.
What we could see instead is a 2015 season similar to what the Mariners did in 2013 when they called up a number of top prospects within a few months of one another. You could argue whether or not those prospects were ready for their promotions (and I argued that they weren't), but I did like their strategy to bring them all up together (they weren't called up at the exact same time but in service clock terms, it was close enough) and start the future all at once.
This is the blueprint for the Twins now that Sano's timetable has been pushed back. The excitement now shifts to 2015 even more so than it already was with an eye on Sano, Meyer and Buxton all taking over as regulars with a few months of one another.