USA TODAY US Edition
Latin American players help get Twins into race
Latin American push came late, but efforts pay dividends, as Sano, others help fuel playoff drive
Minnesota fights Rangers for Wild Card spot.
In late August, when the Minnesota Twins played at the Tampa Bay Rays, the organization bussed its rookie Gulf Coast League team from Fort Myers, Fla., to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a game. Twins manager Paul Molitor sized up the players during batting practice and noted some- thing that surprised him: About two-thirds were from Latin America.
That wasn’t the case 10 years earlier, when Molitor rejoined the organization as minor league baserunning and infield coordinator after the Seattle Mariners fired him as hitting coach.
But it reflects a major shift in Minnesota’s scouting and development strategy, one that began even before the Twins lavished a $3.15 million signing bonus on 16year-old Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano in 2009.
“When you’re down there in the instructional league and at the lower levels, there are way more non-American players than there are American players,” Molitor says. “It just seems overwhelming. As we dip down into talent pools, that’s where a lot of it is coming from. I’m not sure where that’s going to go long term, but you can definitely see the change, how it’s going in that direction.”
More than a decade of being outmaneuvered for Latin American players prompted the Twins
to beef up scouting and development efforts there in the mid-2000s. Now, that effort is starting to show.
Ten players on the Twins’ 40man roster come from Caribbean countries. Enter the Twins clubhouse at Target Field these days, and you’ll find seven Latin American players speaking Spanish among themselves and varying degrees of English to teammates and reporters. Some came through the farm system; others were acquired. As recently as three years ago, the Twins rarely had more than two or three on the club at the same time.
Minnesota’s move to Target Field in 2010 and the creation of international bonus pools in 2012 put more money at the club’s disposal. Even before then, the Twins made changes to be more competitive. Signing Sano for the largest bonus in club history for an international player gave the Twins credibility with buscones, the Dominican street agents who train top players.
The payoff came quickly: Sano, entering Monday, had 16 home runs in 207 major league at-bats, and his .957 on-base-plus-slugging percentage was tops among American League rookies.
And the Twins, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, entered Monday one game behind the Texas Rangers in the race for the AL’s second wild-card spot.
“It’s really a combination of a lot of things,” says Mike Radcliff, the club’s vice president for player personnel. “I don’t know if there was a seminal moment. At about that time (2008-09), a commitment by ownership was really the big thing that occurred.
“I can tell you when we signed Sano, the and the different agents and traders down there (knew) there was a new player in town. We automatically had access to players we never had before, because when you make that kind of financial commitment to one player, everybody reacts to that.”
The Twins were one of the last teams to open an academy in the Dominican Republic, in 2000, after operating one in Venezuela from 1995. A handful of Venezuelans, such as infielder Luis Rivas and pitchers Juan Rincon and Jose Mijares, advanced to the majors. But resources were limited.
For years, Radcliff says, the Twins assigned only one full-time scout to the Dominican and one to Venezuela. Once seven-figure bonus deals became common, the Twins couldn’t keep pace. Miguel Cabrera worked out for Radcliff at the Venezuelan academy in 1999, but the Miami Marlins outbid the Twins, signing Cabrera for $1.8 million.
“Leading up to 2008 or ’09, when the new rules came in, most of us didn’t have access to the best players,” Radcliff says. “We’ve signed major leaguers, but we never had any opportunity to sign the best guys. We did some scouting, but I’m not sure we were set up with the manpower or resources we could have or needed to be fully operational.”
So the Twins looked elsewhere. International scouting director Howard Norsetter’s wife is Australian and he lived half the year there, so the team focused on Australians. The best of them, reliever Grant Balfour, excelled only after leaving the Twins. Efforts in Europe produced prospects but no established major leaguers.
Meanwhile, the Twins fell further behind in Latin America. Minnesota infielder Eduardo Nunez, a Dominican from Santo Domingo, said he and his friends paid scant attention to the Twins because they lacked Dominicans. “We talked about Boston, the Yankees, the Mets, Los Angeles, but not the Twins,” says Nunez, whom the New York Yankees signed in 2004 and traded to Minnesota last year.
By 2006, the Twins understood they needed to do better. The club hired Jose Marzan as Latin American coordinator and promoted Venezuelan scout Jose Leon to supervisor in that country. In 2007, Radcliff brought on Fred Guerrero, son of legendary Dominican scout Epy Guerrero, to scout the Dominican Republic.
With owner Jim Pohlad’s blessing, the Twins spent big in 2009 on Dominican shortstop Jorge Polanco ($750,000) and German-born Max Kepler ($800,000), who received the largest bonus ever for a European. That tapped out the international budget.
Two months later, then-general manager Bill Smith and Radcliff sought Pohlad’s approval to sign Sano after a Major League Baseball investigation confirmed Sano’s identity but not his age. The findings scared off some teams but not the Twins. Pohlad said yes. Sano’s bonus remained a club international high until the Twins gave $4 million to another 16-year-old Dominican, shortstop Wander Javier, in July.
“Give ownership as much credit as anybody,” Radcliff said. “They made the commitment to it when it was initially needed, and there you go. We’ve signed players for more than $3 million, $4 million.”
Now the Twins are well-positioned in the Dominican with four full-time scouts, two parttimers and a modern new academy in Boca Chica. Six scouts, two of them full-timers, operate in Venezuela.
The efforts are paying off. Five decades after Tony Oliva, Camilo Pascual and Zoilo Versalles starred here, the Twins have regained their Latino flavor.
“They signed a lot of players from the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico,” Sano says. “They have great coaches here, great teammates in the big leagues who can help the young guys. They try to help every player. They teach English and how to be inside and outside the field. This is good.”
Says Terry Ryan, who stepped down as general manager in 2007 to scout before coming back to replace Smith as GM in 2011, “It took us a long time to get going in the Dominican Republic. Now we’ve got a good facility, got people, got scouts, and it’s started to show.”
“They have great coaches here, great teammates in the big leagues. ... They teach English and how to be inside and outside the field. This is good.” Twins slugger and Dominican Republic native Miguel Sano, discussing the team’s efforts with Latin American players