All-stars Sano, Santana help increase Twins' Dominican Republican presence
MIAMI - When Miguel Sano steps into the batter's box and Ervin Santana climbs atop the pitcher's mound Tuesday night at Marlins Park, they won't just be representing the Twins at the All-Star Game. They will be representing their native Dominican...
MIAMI - When Miguel Sano steps into the batter's box and Ervin Santana climbs atop the pitcher's mound Tuesday night at Marlins Park, they won't just be representing the Twins at the All-Star Game. They will be representing their native Dominican Republic, which has sent 13 players to this year's midsummer classic.
The Twins join the New York Yankees (three) and Seattle Mariners (two) as the only big-league teams with multiple 2017 all-stars from that baseball-rich nation.
Factor in the recent signings of 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, author of the second-most wins among Dominican-born pitchers, and 16-year-old shortstop Jelfry Marte to a $3 million bonus at the July 2 opening of the international amateur signing period, and it's clear the Twins are on a roll in that part of the world.
"We're in a great place down there," Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. "I think we have the best facility down there right now (in Boca Chica), which is meaningful for us. Certainly every other team has a presence, but we talk a lot about what that means down there and the impact we can make with young players down there."
Also hitting the radar this year: Starting shortstop Jorge Polanco, who joined Sano in the epic 2009 international signing class; rookie pitchers Felix Jorge and Randy Rosario (called up from Double-A Chattanooga for quick cameos); and rookie left-hander Adalberto Mejia, acquired last July for 2016 all-star shortstop Eduardo Nunez, also a Dominican.
TURNING THE TIDE
Twenty years ago it was Venezuela where the Twins had the strongest international scouting presence, but they seem to be climbing the charts in the Dominican Republic.
"Out of the 30 teams, we're in the top 10 right now because of just the way we go about our business with Latin players," said Fred Guerrero, Latin American scouting coordinator for the Twins. "We have a new academy. Players want to go there. We do a pretty good job here in the minor leagues developing talent."
The Twins' list of top prospects includes Dominican shortstop Wander Javier, signed for $4 million at age 16 in 2015, and hard-throwing right-hander Fernando Romero, rated the Twins' No. 4 prospect by MLB.com. Of the Twins' top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com, six were signed out of the Dominican.
That includes Jorge (8), Class A first baseman Lewin Diaz (9), Javier (15), right-hander Huascar Ynoa (22) and Rosario (27).
"It really helps when you've got Dominican or Latin players, and we have a bunch of Latin players right now on this team," Guerrero said. "It makes young kids want to be with us and want to sign with us."
When that core includes one of the game's most feared power hitters in Sano, and a two-time all-star in Santana, signed to a four-year, $55 million free-agent deal in December 2014, the organizational profile only increases among the buscones (or trainer/agents) and impoverished families.
"They've done a great job," said former New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya, now working as a senior adviser to players' union chief Tony Clark. "I think that started with Terry Ryan and Billy Smith. They've always been very engaged, involved. And the new (regime), I'm pretty sure, understands that and is really respectful of the work those guys have done."
Guerrero is the son of late scouting legend Epy Guerrero, who signed more than 50 future major leaguers for the Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers. The younger Guerrero has impressed those who know the confusing Dominican baseball landscape.
"That young kid they have working down there is a very solid kid," said the Dominican-born Minaya, who helped the Texas Rangers sign Sammy Sosa in the 1980s. "He comes from really good baseball roots, and I think he's doing a great job for them. He knows what he's doing."
The best example of that came in the summer and fall of 2009, when Guerrero's strong relationship with Sano and his family enabled the Twins to prevail in a complicated, multi-team battle that included DNA testing and the involvement of the commissioner's office.
In the end, the Twins got their man for $3.15 million, second-largest bonus ever at that point for a Dominican amateur, but well below what other clubs were willing to offer. The New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians all reportedly pursued Sano.
"Fred knows how to handle things," Minaya said. "He's very respectful. The Twins have a guy that's representing them really well."
And sending Sano and Santana to the same All-Star Game can't hurt their ability to sign more Dominican prospects.
"I think it matters," Minaya said. "Some organizations are known as friendly toward that demographic. The Pirates and the Dodgers were known for years that way. For Latin players to be coming out of the (Twins) system, that helps out a lot."
At 24, Sano is the Twins' youngest all-star since Joe Mauer (23) and Francisco Liriano (22) were selected for the 2006 game in Pittsburgh.
With 21 homers at the break and the game's top exit velocity for most of the first half, Sano has the game and the personality to capture the imagination of young fans across the ethnic spectrum.
He credits his offseason work with Fernando Tatis, the 11-year big-league third baseman from the same hometown (San Pedro de Macoris), with refocusing him and preparing him for the rigors of his third season in the majors.
"I worked hard every day," Sano said. "I worked from 6 in the morning to 4 p.m., with only a little break. I was working physically and working on defense. It all started with the tee, and I got a special trainer. I was working on little things to prove I can do more and to be better."
Those Tatis sessions, which were arranged by agent Kyle Thousand and others at Roc Nation Sports, flowed from a talk Guerrero had with Sano in the visitors' clubhouse at Cleveland's Progressive Field last September.
"It was more about taking care of his body and working on his defense," Guerrero said. "He wants to be a leader. He wants to be the guy on a team and he wants to represent. I think it will be good for him to see how the other (all-stars) go about their business and learn and have that experience from other guys that have been in the league for many years."
'THINGS HAVE CHANGED'
Eight years after wondering whether his dream would be undercut by controversy over his age, Sano is here at the game's individual pinnacle along with his wife Daniela, their 9-month-old son Dylan Miguel; mother Melania and stepfather Alvin; and a younger brother and sister.
Ricardo Jean, Sano's biological father, was unable to make the trip from the Dominican for the all-star festivities but Guerrero said the hope is he will make it to the U.S. to watch his son later this season.
"It was a tough time for them (in 2009), but they're very happy right now," Guerrero said. "They're not in that situation. Things have changed for them for good. Better education, new home. He's doing well here in the big leagues. Hopefully he keeps working hard and putting up good numbers."
Having scouted Sano since he was a 14-year-old, over-sized shortstop, Guerrero had to project how he might develop in a variety of ways, including physically.
"I knew he was going to be big," Guerrero said with a smile. "His father (Ricardo) is a pretty big man. He's not tall, but he's a strong man."
Now somewhere around 275 pounds, Sano has shown even greater growth off the field, taking full advantage of the Twins' English-language program in Fort Myers and throughout his rise through the minors.
"He's matured a lot," Guerrero said. "Handling the press and doing interviews and signing autographs, some people don't see it for the Latin players, but that's a big change for them. He's not afraid to speak English. He likes to do interviews in English, and that's good."
There will be plenty of opportunities for Sano to answer media questions in both Spanish and English. His career is just getting started, and with it, perhaps, a long line of successful Twins signings out of the Dominican Republic.
"He's a team player," Guerrero said. "He was very loyal. We knew he was going to be good, so we went through the process and everybody was all in."