Twins become players in international scouting 

Miguel Angel Sano wasn't just a prized Dominican prospect to the Minnesota Twins.

Plenty of teams were in hot pursuit of the 16-year-old shortstop last fall, including heavy hitters on the international market like the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners.

For years, the Twins had taken a back seat to teams more established, and with more money to spend, in the free-for-all that is the international scouting game.

"I think for a while we were a last resort," Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "If guys didn't get signed by the other teams, they'd come see us."

So when the Twins surprised the baseball world by luring Sano with a whopping $3.15 million signing bonus in September, it was the culmination of a 15-year struggle to gain credibility beyond U.S. shores.

"Five years ago we would not have been able to sign Sano," said Mike Radcliff, who oversees the Twins international scouting as vice president of player personnel. "That was a major investment there.

"We think we got a future good player. But it's already had many side benefits as well. It increased our presence greatly and put us on the map for a lot of players and (representatives) that didn't give us the time of day before that."

Now the Minnesota farm system is a hot dish of players from all over the globe — Germany, Australia, Netherlands, Brazil and even the Czech Republic — as the Twins search far and wide for talent.

When Terry Ryan took over as general manager in 1995, he made bolstering Minnesota's international operations a top priority. Teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Braves and Mariners were cleaning up while the Twins languished with substandard resources.

The Twins have been lauded for years for their scouting and development, but the vast majority of those players grew up in North America and were obtained through the draft, including this year's core of Joe Mauer (Minnesota), Justin Morneau (Canada), Jason Kubel (California), Michael Cuddyer (Virginia) and Denard Span (Florida).

"The Dominican was where we weren't being productive and we were spinning our wheels," Radcliff said.

The Twins started by targeting two baseball-crazy nations, setting up an academy in Venezuela and steadily establishing a facility in the talent-rich Dominican Republic.

"In 15 years, we've gone from no facilities to poor facilities and now to facilities in both countries that we're very proud of," current GM Bill Smith said.

They hired Fred Guerrero in the Dominican and Jose Marzan to oversee all of Latin America, and made Jose Leon the coordinator of scouting for Venezuela, where their academy has a staff of 14 and a clubhouse that opened in 2000.

In 2004, the Twins relocated to Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic, joining a complex with the Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks in a much-needed upgrade.

"We went from bad to worse to bad again," Radcliff said. "And now we've got as good a facilities as anybody else down there."

They didn't stop there. Many teams have supplemented the talent they land in Latin America by going to the Pacific Rim, where baseball is extremely popular. The Dodgers landed Hideo Nomo, the Yankees got Hideki Matsui and the Mariners brought Ichiro Suzuki to the United States.

The Twins, meanwhile, have extended their scouting reach to new frontiers — Europe and Australia. Trusted scout Howie Norsetter, based in Australia, has the team ahead of the curve in areas where baseball is low on the sports hierarchy.

They went to the homeland of Bert Blyleven, the former Twins star whose big curveball helped the team win its first World Series in 1987, to sign Dutch pitchers Alexander Smit, who now is in Cincinnati's system, and Loek Van Mil, at 7-foot-1 the tallest pitcher in baseball.

They also plucked infielder Luke Hughes from Australia, outfielder Matej Hejma from the Czech Republic and signed Max Kepler, a 16-year-old German outfielder who was perhaps the most coveted prospect in Europe last year.

"In Latin America, everybody's down there," Radcliff said. "In Europe, only a select few teams are involved."

For now.

With owner Jim Pohlad's blessing, they spent $775,000 on Kepler and another $750,000 on Dominican shortstop Jorge Polanco. That's big money for any team, let alone an organization that had a reputation as one of the most frugal in baseball.

"We moved cautiously into this," Smith said. "We didn't just jump in and start throwing money around. We built the foundation first. We got facilities and we got staff."

The investment, hard work and rebuilding is now starting to pay off for the Twins, who led the AL Central going into the weekend.

Before getting injured, Venezuelan lefty Jose Mijares was a valued member of the bullpen. Catcher Wilson Ramos, another Venezuelan, was called up to fill in for Mauer earlier this season and went 7 for 9 in his first two games. Hughes homered in his first big-league at-bat in April.

"They helped me a lot," said Ramos, who also drew interest from the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox and Orioles. "Before I signed with Twins, I never hit. After I signed with Twins, they worked with me at the bat. They teach me a lot about how to hit."

To hear the Twins tell it, this is only the beginning. Their days of penny-pinching and missing out on upper-echelon prospects because of a lack of resources are over.

"We want to be a threat to get some of the best players in the world every year," Smith said. "We're not going to get all the best ones every year, but we want to be a threat to get those players."

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