Twins Scan The Globe For Prospects
Minnesota casts a wide net in scouting
Since moving to the Twin Cities from Washington in 1961, the Twins have found talent all over the world. Early Twins teams featured stars such as Cubans Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles and Leo Cardenas, as well as Venezuelan Cesar Tovar and Puerto Rico's Vic Power. The Twins signed Panamanian Rod Carew out of a New York high school in 1964, and have had plenty of success in their neighbor, Canada, with players such as Corey Koskie and 2006 American League MVP Justin Morneau. They have been active in Australia for years, producing the likes of Grant Balfour, and of course had the best Dutch player of all time in Bert Blyleven.
However, the Twins don't have a long, or strong, history in the Dominican Republic. The organization was a late comer to the Caribbean country and didn't open an academy there until 2003, when it took over the complex previously shared by the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays.
Longtime Twins international scouting coordinator Howard Norsetter—who signed both Koskie and Morneau—estimates that the organization's best Dominican signee ever was probably Enrique Wilson, whom the Twins inked back in 1992. He never reached the majors with the Twins, having been traded two years later.
In recent years, the Twins' most significant players developed from the Dominican are righthander Julio DePaula, who gave up 20 runs in 20 innings for Minnesota in 2007; and shortstop Estarlin de los Santos, who is currently on the 40-man roster but has yet to play above Class A.
Front office veteran Mike Radcliff made it a goal to change that when he was promoted from scouting director to vice president of player personnel after longtime general manager Terry Ryan stepped down in 2007 to take an advisory role with the organization. Ryan's successor, Bill Smith, had helped get the organization set up with its new academy, and the club had maintained a solid footing in Venezuela. Radcliff had become more involved in Latin America toward the end of his scouting director tenure, and the Twins wanted to become more involved in the Dominican specifically, including hiring Fred Guerrero as the organization's top scout in the country. He's the son of former Blue Jays and Brewers scout Epy Guerrero.
"It's a generalization, but I think most teams look at the draft as a means to acquire power, and supplement that with middle infielders and power arms out of the Dominican," Radcliff said. "We've wanted to be players in the Dominican, and we've tried, but it hasn't always worked out."
Announcing Their Presence
That has started to change, as Minnesota has signed several players the organization is excited about. Righthander Adrian Salcedo, who just missed the Twins' Top 10 Prospects list but will rank at No. 11 in the Prospect Handbook, has an excellent pitcher's frame at 6-foot-4, 175 pounds and has flashed a fastball up to 94 mph, a mid-80s power breaking ball and a feel for a changeup. He was the top performer on the Twins' Rookie-level Gulf Coast League rotation, going 3-2, 1.46 with 58 strikeouts and just three walks in 62 innings.
Farm director Jim Rantz and scouting director Deron Johnson both called Salcedo one of the organization's hardest workers and best-conditioned athletes, and Rantz said flatly, "No one outruns this guy."
Meanwhile, shortstop Daniel Santana came on so strong last season—as did Australian shortstop James Beresford at low Class A Beloit—that Minnesota was comfortable trading Tyler Ladendorf, their 2008 second-round pick, to the Athletics in the Orlando Cabrera deal.
Santana, one of the organization's fastest runners, has a chance to be a top-of-the-order table-setter who stays in the middle of the diamond. He hit .265/.302/.418 in the GCL with a team-best 12 stolen bases in 13 tries while also leading the club with 25 RBIs, despite batting almost exclusively leadoff.
Then there's Miguel Sano, the top-rated international prospect coming into the summer, who appeared to be headed to the Pirates before negotiations broke down. The Twins, who already had spent most of their international budget on German outfielder Max Kepler and Dominican shortstop Jorge Polanco, had been involved with Sano and were able to move in when the Pirates weren't able to close the deal.
The Twins at one time wouldn't go over $1 million for Miguel Cabrera, who eventually signed with the Marlins for $1.9 million. A decade later, Minnesota gave Sano the second-largest signing bonus in franchise history (behind only Joe Mauer), signing him for $3.15 million.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Twins' ability to close the deal with Sano and past failures was the organization's ownership, which has been more willing to spend and more aggressive under Jim Pohlad, the son of late owner Carl Pohlad.
Earlier in the summer, the Twins already had signed Polanco for $350,000, a player Radcliff termed a "classic profile shortstop" with a 7 arm on the 2-to-8 scale. Sooner than later, the Twins hope that Enrique Wilson is no longer their top Dominican signee of all time, and they hope it's sooner.
"Mike hired Fred Guerrero, and he's just doing a terrific job there," said Norsetter, who oversees Asia, Europe and Australia internationally while Jose Marzan coordinates Latin America. "He's connected there, he works hard and he's made us better in the Dominican.
"Mike's done a lot of work down there, as has (special assistant to the GM) Joe McIlvane and Jose Marzan. We've worked harder and gotten better. And with Sano, when it needed to, ownership stepped up."
Tapping The Unknown
While addressing their Dominican weakness, the Twins also haven't abandoned Venezuela or their strong presence in Europe or Australia. In Venezuela the Twins have come up with Wilson Ramos, a powerful catcher, but also Oswaldo Arcia, the GCL club's top power source with five homers and a .455 slugging percentage.
And in Australia, Minnesota remains a top player, with Luke Hughes on the 40-man roster and Beresford, righthanders Liam Hendriks and Brad Tippett and 6-foot-7 third baseman Rory Rhodes at various stages of development. Beresford made his mark with a double off Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman during the World Baseball Classic, and he was teammates with Hendriks and Tippett at Beloit all season. The 21-year-old Tippett, who has above-average major league command of below-average stuff, led the Snappers in innings and strikeouts.
In Europe, the Twins have expanded their reach with Kepler, who most observers agree is the best prospect ever to come out of the continent. He was paid that way, getting $800,000. That's due in part to his size (6-foot-3, 192 pounds) and athletic ability, which he owes to his ballet-dancing parents. It's also due in part to the Twins' familiarity with Kepler, as scout Andy Johnson has known him since he was 14.
"He's a big, graceful athlete," Norsetter said. "He's an easy strider defensively who has that grace and ease of motion that you can see he got from his parents. He will lunge and collapse in his swing from time to time, but at other times he will put a truly beautiful swing on the ball."
Kepler, however, is only the latest Twins' European find. No organization, not even the International House of Mariners, has as many players from as many nations as the Twins, who provided 22 players to rosters during the World Cup in September, including Team USA's shortstop (Trevor Plouffe), Canada's top hitter (Rene Tosoni) and plenty of players for teams from more exotic locales such as Australia, which had four active Twins farmhands on the roster.
The top pitcher for the Netherlands was 19-year-old Tim Stuifbergen, who also pitched against the Dominican Republic in his country's momentous World Baseball Classic upset. He's noted for his upper-80s sinker that has touched 93 mph and throws three pitches for strikes. He's still looking up to 7-foot-1 righty Loek Van Mil, the Dutch reliever who didn't pitch in the World Cup but who has earned a spot on the 40-man roster.
The Twins provided World Cup players to the Czech Republic (Matej Hejma, an outfielder, and lefthander Jan Rehacek), as well as Spain (first baseman/outfielder Lesther Galvan) to South Africa (lefthander Hein Robb, who pitched in the WBC as a 16-year-old).
"I didn't know whether to be proud of it or embarrassed," Norsetter said with a laugh. "A lot of those guys were guys we had released, don't forget. But we used to have four full-time scouts in Europe; now we have three, but that's still more than most clubs.
"If you have more people, you should have more information, so you have a chance to make better choices. That's the advantage we have."
The disadvantage of the approach is the fact that, as Norsetter acknowledges, baseball isn't the top sport in any of these countries. Australia has never quite filled expectations that took off in the 1980s when Dave Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd were signed and wound up having long, successful big league careers. And soccer is king in Europe, and September's World Cup—which drew scant fan attention outside of Germany—reiterated that the sport's profile on the continent remains very low. Baseball's ouster from the Olympics will not help on that front, as it's expected to drain money from national grass-roots federations.
Undeterred, the Twins keep expanding their reach in Europe, pushing into the former Soviet bloc. While they have shelved plans they once had to open an academy for Eastern European players in the Czech Republic, they also employ two Czechs and two Russians. Lefthander Andrei Lobanov, a 20-year-old Muscovite (that's someone from Moscow), posted a sterling 35-1 strikeout-walk ratio and 0.82 ERA in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Norsetter describes Lobanov has a three-pitch lefty who tops out at 87 mph now and who has projection remaining in his 6-foot-3, 171-pound body.
Lobanov's Dominican teammate, Salcedo, has higher billing for now, though. It's a bit easier to foresee a Dominican pitcher working his way through the minors than a Russian lefthander, even with the Twins' checkered history with Dominicans.