One International Signing Class Can Reshape A Franchise. Just Ask The Twins.
Entering the summer of 2009, the Twins were a mid-level player on the international market. They had some history of success, namely in Australia and Venezuela, but they rarely spent big money and rarely competed for top players.
In the Dominican Republic, in particular, the Twins were a virtual non-factor.
“We were shackled in the D.R. for a long, long time because we never had a facility,” said Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, who oversaw the club’s international scouting for more than two decades.
“For a long time, going back to the ’90s and early 2000s, we had nothing. We had essentially rotating places where we would run tryouts in the D.R. We were basically just running tryouts wherever scouts could find a field.”
It was in that context that Fred Guerrero sought to make a big push. Since joining the Twins as a Dominican scouting supervisor in 2004, Guerrero had watched for a class talented enough to convince his superiors to spend more money internationally.
In the class of 2009, Guerrero found what he was looking for.
Two shortstops from San Pedro de Macoris, Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco, caught Guerrero’s eye and became the targets of his pursuit. Halfway around the world, fellow international scout Andy Johnson locked in on German outfielder Max Kepler.
Together, the Twins’ international staff decided this was the class worth going big on—the one they had been waiting for.
Facilitated by Radcliff and then-general manager Bill Smith, they got the money they needed to seal it.
"Before that our top (international signing) was probably for $200,000 and probably didn’t even make it to the big leagues," Guerrero said. “We were looking to do it two to three years before that. It just wasn’t the right players to make a big splash. In ’09, it came through.”
Did it ever.
Once an afterthought, the Twins are now an international powerhouse on the strength of that 2009 class.
Sano and Polanco became all-stars by 25. Kepler led all American League right fielders with 36 home runs last season. All three played integral roles in leading the Twins to the playoffs twice in the last three seasons, and all three have received multi-year contracts to ensure they will be part of the Twins’ future.
Getting one impact player out of an international signing class is a victory. Finding two is a rare historical feat.
What the Twins did, signing three impact players in one international class, is nearly unprecedented. It altered the trajectory of the franchise.
“That class has its value because it has three really good players . . . who are impacting our major league team,” Radcliff said. “But I think it also, just as much value, increased the organization’s view on just how important it was to be a major player on the international market.”
Polanco was the first step in engineering that change.
Both he and Sano lived in San Pedro de Macoris. As the Twins’ top scout in the Dominican Republic, Guerrero made sure to check on Polanco whenever he was in town to see Sano.
Polanco was 15 years old and weighed 140 pounds at the time. Only a few other teams were interested in him. Guerrero, however, made sure to cultivate a relationship.
“Even though he was young and weak and skinny, he was effortless in the way he went about his game,” Guerrero said. “Even against older kids he was advanced enough that he would compete against them.”
On July 6, Polanco’s 16th birthday, the Twins signed him for $775,000.
Kepler, the son of two professional ballet dancers who met while performing in Berlin, was a talented youth tennis and soccer player. He turned his attention to baseball and reached Germany’s highest league at 15.
There was little history of European position players becoming successful major leaguers, but Twins scouts Johnson, Glen Godwin and Howard Norsetter believed in what they saw.
They signed Kepler for $800,000 on July 11, the largest bonus ever given to a European player.
“We looked for other places in the world that were almost niche markets,” Radcliff said. “We focused on Europe before most other teams got there. We focused on Australia before other teams really thought it had much value. We were trying to work the margins a little bit before the crowd got involved. That worked to our advantage on Kepler. There was a limited market.”
At that point, the Twins thought they were done. The more than $1.5 million they spent on Polanco and Kepler already represented a larger-than-usual international expense for the franchise. In any matter, Sano had already agreed to a deal with the Pirates.
Then, fate intervened. Questions about Sano’s age led to a Major League Baseball investigation. The Pirates used the uncertainty to drive down their signing bonus offer, causing strain between the organization, Sano’s family and his agent. Negotiations dragged on for months.
Eventually, the Twins swooped in. On Oct. 9, they signed Sano for $3.15 million, the largest signing bonus awarded to any international amateur that year.
"I never backed down off of him,” Guerrero said. “Even after July 2 I was in it all the way through.”
The Sano signing was a bold pronouncement. The Twins were no longer non-factors in the Dominican Republic.
"That for sure increased our presence down there,” Radcliff said. “It sent a message to the other trainers and the other agents down there that we were serious, and I credit ownership for allowing us to spend that kind of money.”
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For the Twins, success has begat success. They followed their 2009 class by signing Venezuelans Luis Arraez in 2013 and Brusdar Graterol in 2014. In 2016 they spent $4 million to sign top Dominican prospect Wander Javier. In 2017, they opened a sparkling new facility in the Dominican Republic they share with the Phillies.
While the Twins had international successes before, the 2009 class set them on a new course. Above all, the class is a testament to just how big of a difference one international signing crop can make.
“It took us a long time,” Radcliff said. “It really was a long slog to build up the necessary personnel and processes and everything involved to make it work. Now, it’s part of who we are. It’s something we are proud of as an organization.”
The Twins have been one of the top teams at scouting and signing international players in the 2000s. Here are some of their top signees.
.258, 75 HR in six seasons
2019 AL All-Star
.283, 28 HR in 2019
118 HR in five seasons
Career-high 36 HR in 2019
.295, 22 HR in 2019
Hit .334 as a rookie
No. 60 prospect on BA Top 100