It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. My mom used to say that a lot, and I used to think it was a load of crap. I still do in many ways, but it sure does apply to how I watch minor league baseball. I actually had to look up the final score (Beloit 9, Kane County 7) of my first minor league game of the season, because I really don't care who wins. I wasn't there to see a collective group of Snappers or Cougars, I was there to see players, specifically a pair of 18-year-old cleanup hitters: Jorge Bonifacio of Kane County and Miguel Sano of Beloit. Neither disappointed.
The younger brother of Marlins multi-positional player Emilio Bonifacio, Jorge's similarities to his Emilio end at the last name. He's not a burner, but rather an average to slightly above runner, and he's not a future leadoff man, but rather a middle-of-the-order hitter. The Kane County lineup is not an imposing one, so Bonfacio's talent stands out, despite the fact that he's more than a year younger than anyone else on the team, not turning 19 until June.
At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, he's not an overwhelming physical presence, and he didn't enter pro ball with the hype of a multi-million dollar deal, as he signed for $135,000 in 2009. A .284/.333/.492 season in the Appy League put him on the map, and scouting reports were strong enough for him to rank as the No. 8 Royals prospect entering the year. With Bubba Starling in extended spring training, he's the highest ranked prospect on the Cougars' roster, and through five games, he's 8-for-17 with six walks and just two strikeouts.
Bonifacio sets up wide and has a remarkably quick swing. There is only a tiny step forward as a trigger, and not much energy transfer, so while he makes hard contact, it could take some time for the power to develop. He has wide shoulders and plenty of strength, but while power hitters get their full bodies into their swings, Bonifacio's swing is arm-dependent with limited torque, and the power could take some time to develop. Entering the year with a reputation as a free swinger, Bonifacio drew three walks from a wild Beloit staff on Monday while also going 2-for-2 with a double, but there was clearly an approach there as well, as he laid off breaking balls and found pitches to hit. There is still a lot of work to be done between where he is now and his potential as an above-average everyday right fielder, but his kind of talent at such a young age is rare; while we wait for Starling to arrive, Bonifacio provides a reason for prospect hounds to watch the Cougars. By the end of the year, he has a real chance to be Top 101-worthy.
Miguel Sano was the main event. One of the highest profile signings in Latin American history, Sano is coming off a 66-game 2011 Appy League season split between third base and shortstop, in which he hit 20 home runs in 293 at-bats, but with 77 strikeouts and 26 errors. Having never seen Sano in person, I walked into the park with numerous expectations, and so many of them turned out to be wrong:
- I expected him to be huge, but he's simply big. Much has been written about how Sano is big and getting bigger, and while he's put on a good 30 to 40 pounds since signing in 2009 for $3.15 million, there is nothing concerning about his size. This certainly does not look like a Joel Guzman situation where the player grew himself out of a big league career. The 230 pounds on Sano's six-foot-three (I think he might be taller as well) is well-proportioned and gives him more stature than bulk.
- I expected him to be a free swinging maniac, and he's anything but. Sano had drawn 32 unintentional walks in 415 at-bats since arriving in the states. He had a reputation for chasing breaking balls outside of the strike zone, but on Monday, he had some of the most impressive plate appearances of the game, working walks in consecutive at-bats in the fourth and fifth innings, with the latter being a double-digit pitch battle that included fouling off several pitches to stay alive, and avoiding the temptation to swing at pitching clearly designed to do so.
- I expected him to have some power, and he has tons. In his final two at-bats of the game, Sano hit his second and third home runs of the season, and his first since a grand slam on opening day. Both were to the opposite field, and he really didn't fully connect on either. Unlike Bonifacio, Sano already has the swing of a power hitter. He has an upright stance with a bit of bat waggle, and his bat goes through the zone violently with plenty of explosion from his mid-section and hips. There are far more advanced hitters who don't have the kind of loft and backspin Sano generates without incorporating an uppercut; it's rare to see a teenager in Low-A who almost easily projects to have the power of a No. 4 hitter in a major league lineup, but Sano does.
- I expected him to be a laughably awful defensive player, but he was merely bad. It's not often you can get a good look at a third baseman in one game, but with Beloit putting a slew of lefties on the mound, Sano was the recipient of six chances: one line drive and five ground balls. He converted each chance into an out, but it wasn't exactly pretty. He caught the liner at his waist with his glove upside down, and he backed up on grounders to force a clean hop and then use his plus arm, as opposed to coming in on balls to allow for the easier fielding opportunity. It's not exactly lackadaisical, but he's letting the ball play him as opposed to vice versa. The one thing that doesn't work against him is his size. He's not fast, but he does move well and his actions are relatively clean, which is not surprising for a player originally signed as a shortstop. He's still a long shot to stay at the position, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility.
Sano is the early Midwest League leader in both home runs and RBI, and he has a good chance to remain at the top of those leaderboards throughout the season. There is not much for Twins fans to be excited about right now, but Sano could change that for fans who are willing to exercise patience. He's a sublime talent, but like Bonifacio, part of that excitement comes from the fact that he is 18 years old, leaving him more dream than reality. It sure is one hell of a good dream, though.