How Sano landed in Minnesota
By Derek Wetmore 1500ESPN.com Senior Editor MINNEAPOLIS -- When Miguel Sano was 15 years old, he was the most sought after prospect in the Dominican Republic. The Twins and many other Major League Baseball teams began following him when he was 14...
By Derek Wetmore
1500ESPN.com Senior Editor
MINNEAPOLIS - When Miguel Sano was 15 years old, he was the most sought after prospect in the Dominican Republic. The Twins and many other Major League Baseball teams began following him when he was 14 or 15, and pretty much everyone knew he would command a big signing bonus after he turned 16, the age at which the league allows international players to sign with teams as free agents.
When a small handful of teams where there with big offers around the time of Sano’s eventual signing in September of 2009, the decision hinged on trust.
Sano and his four closest confidants gathered for a vote, according to a source, and the meeting concluded with a consensus, five votes to zero: Sano would sign with the Twins.
The story of Sano’s signing is unique, but the basic details aren’t all that uncommon. Sano grew up poor in the Dominican Republic and began pursuing baseball as an occupation by age 12, when he linked up with his trainer/coach, Moreno Tejeda.
Scouts with various teams saw nearly boundless potential in the shortstop with a powerful swing, a strong arm and a good frame. He was the type of player that every organization would like to have in its system, even if the high price tag - once assumed to be roughly a $6 million signing bonus - scared off some teams.
MLB had launched an investigation surrounding speculation that Sano might not be only 16 years old, and also that he might not actually be who he claimed. There have been cases of fraudulent identity in the baseball hotbeds of Latin America, in which players have claimed to be younger than they are so they can command top signing bonuses. A 19-year-old with a big fastball is nice, but a 16-year-old with the same fastball is even better.
Because of his talent and size, Sano was heavily scrutinized. After months of digging involving DNA tests, bone scans, and even school report cards, MLB’s research was inconclusive. The league did confirm his identity, according to the documentary featuring Sano, Ballplayer: Pelotero. That is, Sano is who he said he was, and he was indeed the son of his mother, Melania. But it never nailed down with absolute certainty how old he was.
Technically, that’s still uncertain today. Sano’s listed age is 22, as he was born on May 11, 1993, in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
The world characterized in the Pelotero film can be shady at times. MLB essentially told teams that he might be 16 or he might not be, but you’re free to sign him at your own risk. The bone tests said he was around that age, according to the documentary.
THE POINT MAN
The Twins trusted their scout in the Dominican, Fred Guerrero, and his evaluation of Sano. Working with VP of player personnel Mike Radcliff and then-GM Bill Smith, the group took an offer - $3.15 million, then a franchise record for an international signing bonus - to team president Dave St. Peter and owner Jim Pohlad, both of whom were excited to sign off on it, according to multiple people involved.
The Twins signed Sano in late September of 2009, several months after the cash cascade that accompanies the new July 2 international signing period. The Twins had already spent what was then big money on international prospects Jorge Polanco out of the Dominican and Max Kepler from Germany, so Pohlad’s approval was imperative. The Twins staff pitched Pohlad on Sano, whom they felt was the best prospect in that area in years, and would be the cream of the organization’s international crop that year.
“No team was ever given the OK [on his age],” said Radcliff, the Twins’ VP or player personnel. “The [age] investigation was never verified or given the OK by MLB. So that was the final piece, our ownership, Mr. Pohlad, gave us the OK.”
The Twins took a big risk investing that much money in Sano, and the early returns in his rookie season have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Our scout down there, Fred Guerrero, was convicted in his belief, through his research and his due diligence that indeed he was of age and there wasn’t anything fishy going on. So we convinced our ownership that we should take the chance,” Radcliff said. “Fred Guerrero was an integral part of the signing of Miguel Sano, there’s no question.”
Several people interviewed for this story said the Twins weren’t the highest offer on the table at the time. With everything Sano had been through - the tests, the identity questions, the near constant scrutiny - evidently Sano was comfortable pulling down the top international signing bonus that year, while signing with a group of people he trusted.
“Rob [Plummer, Sano’s agent] was working with many different teams to try to get them to make a financial commitment to sign him, and he had belief and trust in us for just being who we are,” Radcliff said. “You know Terry [Ryan], we all work under him. We’re pretty straightforward, honest. We’re not playing any games, and they realized that in this case with Miguel. ... They had trust and belief in us, just like we did in our relationship with the family and Miguel.”
Ryan said of Guerrero: “Fred’s a good person and he’s well-respected in Latin America. And people know kind of our reputation here that we don’t try to lead anybody on.”
The Twins told Sano at the time that “it’s going to take work, you’re going to have to earn your promotions. We believe you can play third base,” according to Ryan.
“I think it was one of those situations where they had faith that what we said we were going to back up,” Ryan said.
The New York Yankees made an offer, according to one person with knowledge of the negotiations, in the $3 million range. They had already spent $3 million that year on the big signing bonus of Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez. The Pirates had wanted to sign Sano for a long time, and their final offer reportedly was $2.6 million. One report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested the Pirates would have liked a chance to compete with the Twins offer, but Sano signed with the Twins before Pittsburgh was given that opportunity, perhaps in part because of alleged mistrust that organization engendered during negotiations. Some reports also say the Baltimore Orioles also were involved in the late stages of negotiation.
As MLB’s investigation into Sano’s age and identity dragged on for months after the July 2 signing window opened, the Twins didn’t waver in their interest. Guerrero, the scout in the Dominican, remained in contact with Sano and his family. Radcliff continued to speak with Plummer, Sano’s agent. The Twins respected Plummer’s wish to not begin negotiating before the investigation concluded, although not every team heeded that request.
“That was very important to me. I wanted to make sure that I was negotiating with all the teams at the same time,” Plummer said. “I also was really frustrated that the investigation didn’t get done before July 2, because that eliminated teams that had used their budget and weren’t willing to go to their owner for more money.”
Once MLB told teams of its findings, Guerrero and the Twins put their offer on the table. Sano and his family made a life-changing decision, and by the following spring, the Dominican star began his climb to the big leagues with a short stay in the Dominican Summer League the Gulf Coast League Twins in Florida.
Guerrero and Radcliff spoke on a nearly daily basis, Ryan said, although he noted that he was not directly involved with these processes in 2009, after he stepped down as GM at the end of 2007. “They stayed with it,” he said. “It started to disintegrate with a lot of clubs.”
“We’ve invested a lot in him and we had to jump through hoops to get that guy signed. It was complicated,” Ryan said “Competition, you know, everybody was in on Sano. It got complicated because of age, question marks ... Fred [Guerrero], and Radcliff and Billy [Smith] and the people responsible for signing him stayed with it, stayed with the agent, with the kid. There were a couple teams right at the end where they chose us. And I think it was because of trust.”
Plummer thought it was important to land Sano with a team that would act respectably at the time of the signing bonus “because I knew how good Miguel was and I wanted a team that also was going to negotiate with me in good faith in the future with Miguel.”
“A major reason that Miguel Sano signed with the Twins is because of my trust in Mike Radcliff and Terry Ryan,” Plummer said.
ON HIS WAY
Much of Sano’s career is yet to be decided. His first 200 plate appearances in the big leagues suggest he’s on his way to stardom. At 22, he’s already drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera.
In his first 53 games with the Twins, Sano hit a robust .293/.400/.609, and is a fixture in the middle of the lineup despite his youth and the fact that he’s playing with a strained hamstring. He’s clubbed 15 home runs and has 42 RBI, which is sixth on the team, despite the late start after his July 2 call-up.
Sano has drawn as much or more praise for his approach at the plate as he has for his top-of-the-charts power. He doesn’t chase a lot of pitches, he sees a lot of pitchers per plate appearance, and in addition to the power, he’s drawing a lot of walks. The downside early on in his career is that he’s striking out in almost 36 percent of his plate appearances, which is an incredibly high rate, and would lead the Majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
He’s quickly earned that reputation as a presence in the heart of the Twins’ lineup, and opposing teams are already treating him like a veteran middle-of-the-order hitter. Despite the strikeouts, Sano has been as productive as anyone could have reasonably expected at such a young age. He’s also making some of the hardest contact in the league, right up there in the same conversation as sluggers like Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton.