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Miguel Sano, Byung Ho Park could be keys to Twins' offense in 2016

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If the Minnesota Twins have any intention of building on their surprising 83-win total from a year ago, they'll need more production from the middle of the batting order. The two big wild cards in the equation are Miguel Sano, the team's No. 3 hitter, and Byung Ho Park, who is projected to bat two or three spots behind Sano.

A little patience and understanding will come in handy as Sano and Park find their way. One of Minnesota's would-be sluggers is changing positions. The other is changing positions and hemispheres.

The dual experiment has made for an intriguing, below-the-radar dynamic at Hammond Stadium. Sano slugged .529 in his first 15 games this spring while trying to learn the intricacies of right field. Park, who signed a three-year, guaranteed $12 million contract in December, is transitioning from first base to designated hitter after putting up some big numbers in the Korean Baseball Organization. If the two righty bashers can fill in the gaps around Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe and Eddie Rosario in the order and Byron Buxton comes close to justifying his prospect hype in center field, the Twins might be able to graduate from pesky to a legitimate threat in the American League Central.

"They're two key pieces to our lineup," Minnesota assistant GM Rob Antony said. "We want to and need to score more runs than we did last year."

After ranking eighth in the AL with 696 runs and 13th in OPS at .704, the Twins have reason to believe things will improve if several lineup mainstays can fulfill personal objectives. Mauer is intent on pulling the ball with more authority than he did a year ago, when he hit 10 homers and slugged .380 in 592 at-bats. Dozier wants to do a better job of using the entire field after a dramatic post-All-Star Game drop-off. Rosario, who led the majors with 15 triples, needs to improve upon his 13 walks and .289 on base percentage as a rookie.

No single Minnesota hitter can change the tone of a game more dramatically than Sano, whose raw power places him in a group with Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and a handful of other elite righty mashers.

Sano can leave a major impression without leaving the yard. In a recent Grapefruit League game against Pittsburgh, he hit a fly ball that traveled 400 feet off the end of the bat to dead center for an out in his first plate appearance. The next time up, he hit a tracer that made a booming noise as it ricocheted off the fence for a double.

The two swings brought back memories of an August game in Tampa Bay, in which Sano crushed a fly ball that struck a catwalk and was ruled a double. Twins TV color man Bert Blyleven half-jokingly observed that the ball might have put a hole in the Tropicana Field roof if it had continued its trajectory unimpeded.

"My gosh," Twins play-by-play man Dick Bremer said on the broadcast. "I didn't think a human being could hit a baseball that far."

Miguel, watch Miguel

Sano provided an encouraging glimpse of things to come when he arrived from Double-A Chattanooga in July and launched 18 homers in 80 games. He performed while lugging around a heavy heart after the death of his infant daughter, Angelica, because of a heart defect in December 2014 in his native Dominican Republic.

Power is Sano's calling card, but he also has a knack for working counts and putting himself in an advantageous hitting position. Last year, he averaged 4.34 pitches per plate appearance and posted a .385 on base percentage, despite 119 strikeouts in 279 at-bats.

Opposing pitchers worked Sano carefully as a rule, and the Twins want him to remain patient even when teams refuse to challenge him in fastball counts. To reinforce that message, Minnesota hitting coaches Tom Brunansky and Rudy Hernandez have told him to follow the example of a future Hall of Fame first baseman in Detroit.

"We throw a lot of Miguel Cabrera at him," Brunansky said. "That's a good player to watch and emulate: His whole work ethic and how he goes about his batting practice and sets up at-bats and handles situational hitting. It's something we can sit here and talk about. But when you have someone like Cabrera who these kids look up to, it's like free video. If [Sano] can grasp anything from Cabrera that makes him better today, it's a win-win."

Beyond the confines of the batter's box, Sano has some hurdles to clear before he's a finished product. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, and his weight has been the topic of some discussion and intrigue in Twins camp. There have been rumblings that Sano hasn't applied himself to learning the outfield as diligently as the Twins would like.

In a recent interview with Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, Boston DH (and former Twin) David Ortiz questioned whether Sano's legs can take the pounding he'll be subjected to as a big man in the outfield. Ortiz contended that the Twins would be better served keeping Sano at third base and moving Plouffe from third to right field.

"Sano's the power hitter the Twins have been waiting for a long time, and by the middle of the game, his legs are going to be gone," Ortiz told Reusse. "I saw it with Hanley [Ramirez] last year. He's more athletic than Sano, and Hanley in left field ... it was a disaster."

The Twins are walking a fine line with Sano. They need him to play representative defense in right field, but he won't do them much good if he pulls a hamstring while chasing a ball down in the gap and misses a month.

"Like we've said from the beginning, we want him to be a guy that makes the routine plays and makes good decisions when he's got the ball in his hands," manager Paul Molitor said. "How high the expectations should be from the start, I'm not sure. You have to let him go through it and learn. We just want to make sure he continues to embrace that it's important -- not just what he does in the batter's box."

The experiment won't lack for entertainment value. When a Twins beat writer suggested the team might have to reinforce the Target Field wall in anticipation of Sano slamming into it, Molitor expressed more concern about the welfare of his center fielder.

"We might have to reinforce Buxton," he said.

One of the boys

Park, 29, is coming off back-to-back 50-homer, 140-plus strikeout seasons with the Nexen Heroes in the KBO. One AL talent evaluator compared him to boom-or-bust slugger Chris Carter of the Milwaukee Brewers, though Park comes in a more compact package at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds.

As he learns his way around MLB pitching staffs, Park will have to adjust to starters and relievers who throw harder and with more movement than their counterparts in Korea. The challenge is shortening his path to the ball and minimizing his holes without overreacting and creating more problems than he solves.

Initially, Molitor thought he might have to pick his spots and sit Park against hard-throwing righties from the Corey Kluber-Yu Darvish-Justin Verlander fraternity. He has seen enough bat speed and hand-eye coordination in the Grapefruit League to suggest he can remove the training wheels and insert Park's name in the lineup against some top-shelf righties.

"I thought upper-end velocity would be a little challenging for him, but he's handled that well," Molitor said. "He's a little bit of a guess hitter, which is OK. Some power hitters do that. You never know how things will go when the bell rings, but I don't think I'm going to have to protect him as much as I thought in the early stages of the season."

Park's transition to America has been hastened by a better than expected grasp of the English language. Although Park does media interviews with the aid of a personal translator, J.D. Kim, he nods and smiles during questions like a man who understands what he's being asked.

The Twins and Park are navigating some cultural checkpoints as they get acquainted. Team communications director Dustin Morse was recently riding with Park and Kim when he was surprised to hear them queue up Madonna on the car stereo. In mid-March, pitcher Phil Hughes broke the monotony of camp by hosting a viewing party for the final episode of "The Bachelor." Hughes' fiancée made tacos for the team and prepared a traditional Korean kimchi dish for Park, who gave it a hearty seal of approval.

"To be honest, I've got to admit I was a little nervous at the beginning in a new environment in a new country," Park said through Kim. "But everybody in the clubhouse and front office has been treating me really nice. They're so kind here. It has made me very comfortable."

When asked if he has grown close to any Twins in particular, Park showed a flair for diplomacy.

"They're all cool dudes," he said. "It's hard to choose one."

As the season opener in Baltimore approaches, the Twins are looking like one big, happy family. If their new DH and right fielder can facilitate more celebrations at home plate and in the dugout this season, so much the better.