When Miguel Sano took the stage at Target Field last week to address the media following the signing of a three-year extension, it was the culmination of a chain of events set in motion well before he signed with the Minnesota Twins as an international free agent in October 2009.
The extension itself happened quite quickly, within the span of about two weeks after the New Year’s holiday. The initial signing, however, was a different story.
Sano was 13 years old when he first caught the eye of Fred Guerrero, who is the Latin American scouting coordinator for the Twins. That would put the timeline in or around 2006.
That timeline is probably not coincidental. The Twins opened their first academy in the Dominican Republic not long before then (2004).
At 14 and 15, Sano was doing things with the bat that very few kids his age could. “For 14-, 15-year-old kids, hitting a ball 400 feet …you normally don’t see that and he was hitting (with) a wood bat,” Guerrero said. “He wasn’t even using aluminum.”
The first time the Twins signed Sano carried a significant amount of hoopla. There were questions about Sano’s age, and the ensuing circus resulted in a documentary entitled “Ballplayer: Pelotero.”
And the fact that Sano signed in October instead of the customary July 2 — due to persistent questions about his actual age and the added time needed to alleviate those concerns — wore on the young man as well. Sano underwent bone scans on two separate occasions to prove he was in fact 16 years old, and not 18 or 19 as some players had been in the past. That was among the more dignified aspects of the whole ordeal, as he was also required to submit various bodily fluids to MLB to help aid the efforts in ascertaining his age.
“It’s been a long way for him,” Guerrero said. “He’s gone through a process. When I started reaching out to him, he was feeling very uncomfortable and sad at a certain point because he didn’t sign on July 2 and he signed later. I just wanted to keep him motivated and get to know him.”
Those weren’t the only bumps along the way.
At the end of 2017, Sano was accused of assaulting a photographer at an event at Ridgedale Mall two years prior. And while the ensuing MLB investigation resulted in no suspension being levied, it’d be foolish to say his public perception has been the same since.
There were bumps on the field, too.
In 2016, the Twins asked Sano to come to spring training prepared to play right field. He was admittedly ill-equipped for such an assignment — be it inadequate offseason preparation or simply being a round peg forced into a square hole — but the experiment fizzled and a lot of the positive momentum derived from a stellar rookie season (.916 OPS in 80 games) subsided (.781 OPS in 116 games with hamstring issues mixed in).
That proved to be a temporary bump in the road, as Sano made his first — and to date, only — All-Star Game in 2017. With his feet firmly planted on in the infield dirt, Sano set a career-high with 28 homers and slashed .264/.352/.507.
The 2018 season was a disaster for Sano. In May he dealt with hamstring issues. In June, he was sent to High-A Fort Myers — the team’s domestic hub for pretty much everything outside of Minneapolis — for what could only be termed as a disciplinary measure. He wasn’t playing well; his body wasn’t where it needed to be.
In short, it was a wake-up call.
After two months away, Sano returned to the Twins’ lineup. The results weren’t much better (.684 OPS) than they were when he was sent out (.675). Maybe his MLB career didn’t hang in the balance, but it sure seemed like his future with the Twins did.
So the Twins decided to build up a support system for Sano — most notably, signing designated hitter and mentor Nelson Cruz. And while the 2019 season started inauspiciously for Sano with a heel injury suffered while celebrating a Dominican Winter League title, he rebounded to hit a career-high 34 homers in just 105 games with a .247/.346/.576 slash line.
Maybe the most notable part about Cruz — aside from being Sano’s fellow countryman, and by definition, a native Spanish speaker — was that he’d been through a lot of the same things as Miguel had. Cruz didn’t play more than 100 games in an MLB season until his age-28 season. Sano, who is entering his age-27 season, has done so three times but has never played more than 116 in any year.
Cruz also had to atone for a lapse in judgment — a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2013 when he was with the Texas Rangers.
But the finished product with Cruz has been impressive. He’s a galvanizing force in the clubhouse, and he’s aged better than some of the finest wines available to man when it comes to on-field performance.
Not only that, but he has Sano’s ear unconditionally.
“No,” Sano replied flatly when asked if he and Cruz have ever had difficult discussions. “When he tells me something, that’s what I do. Whatever he says, I do.”
“He’s the best,” Sano said. “He talks to people — man-to-man. From his heart. That kind of stuff.”
Sano isn’t unique in the respect that he recently signed an extension with the Twins. That’s also true of fellow 2009 imports Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, who had their extensions introduced at a dual press conference during spring training last year.
But Sano also isn’t unique in the respect that he’s experienced bumps along the way.
None of this is to say the bumps are at all similar, but Polanco missed 80 games due to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs at the start of the 2018 season.
The Twins have had ample success in the Latin markets in recent seasons — especially more so as the Dominican academy evolved from a rental in the early days to a full-fledged team-owned space that opened prior to the 2017 season. That space cost $18 million to build and is housed on nearly 50 acres in Boca Chica — and is shared with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“The Dominican Republic is an absolutely essential part of our world for the Minnesota Twins to help search for talent and to help improve our organization,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said when the team announced the opening of the new facility. “It’s that way for all 30 clubs. This investment is certainly in a new facility, but I view it that it goes deeper than that. It’s an investment in the country. It’s also an investment in young people.
“This is home to a number of players and staff.”
Guerrero evoked names of not only current Twins like Sano, Polanco, Luis Arraez and Brusdar Graterol, but also former Twins like Danny Santana as successes of the team’s continued efforts in the Dominican Republic and Latin America at large.
And as time goes on, the Twins are investing more and more in the players — not only on the field, but as human beings.
“I think our job in player development really is to develop not only baseball players, but men,” Twins general manager Thad Levine said at the opening of the new academy. “People are entrusting us with their children — in this case, kids as young as 16 years old. Not only are they learning the English language here, they’re learning cultural lessons. They’re learning toward getting a high-school diploma. We’re also going to bring in guest speakers to teach them other facets about how to be a man and a productive member of society. We take it very seriously.”
The Twins graduated their first class prior to last season — seven players in all — and it’s a great source of pride for the organization.
“There’s a great deal of pride and effort that was put into that,” Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey told the St. Paul Pioneer Press last January. “I know this is important to the Pohlad family, this is important to (team president) Dave (St. Peter) and others that we invest in the entire athlete, and it’s important to us.”
“Hopefully these seven are the first of many that are part of it,” then-farm director and current assistant general manager Jeremy Zoll told the Pioneer Press.
At least from this purview, it would seem that the Twins are hopeful of creating/cultivating an environment that smooths out some of the potential bumps down the road in an effort to curtail them as much as possible — if not altogether.
“One of the unique aspects is that they sleep here,” Levine said. “We have them, really, for 24 hours. They get up in the morning and have breakfast. They usually go out on the field and do some sort of workout. They’ll come back in and have a classroom setting. Then they get a lift in, and in the afternoon they go back out and play a game.”
The organization’s conviction in the process will be tested in the years to come. Presently, three of the team’s top-10 prospects via MLB Pipeline are of Dominican or Venezuelan descent: Graterol, Wander Javier and Jhoan Duran. In all, 11 of the team’s top-30 prospects are of Latin descent and all were originally signed as international free agents.
And while not all of them have gone through the process in full as Twins, the hope is that investing this much in this kind of a facility will create a ripple effect channeling up through the organization.
“This facility here in Boca Chica is representative of all the best and brightest in all of Major League Baseball. We think it’s the best facility in the game,” St. Peter said.