International Players in the Twins System
All major league organizations, to a greater or lesser extent, scout and sign international players. Most teams concentrate their efforts in Latin America, especially the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Over the last ten years, more teams are investing resources in scouting the Pacific Rim: Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Australia.
The Minnesota Twins have never been huge players in Latin America, though the recent signing of Miguel Sano indicates that is changing. But soccer-crazy Europe is nearly virgin territory as far as baseball is concerned, and the Twins are the clear leaders in finding players from the old world.
Howard Norsetter is Minnesota's International Scouting coordinator. He oversees the Twins efforts in Europe, Australia, and Asia. Howard graciously consented to answer some questions for us about what the Twins are doing.
SICKELS: Howard, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I know Jose Marzan handles the Latin American side of Minnesota's scouting operation, but I want to ask a couple of questions about the approach in Latin America before getting to your specific area of expertise. Twins fans are very excited about the signing of Miguel Sano, but the system also has other exciting Latin American prospects such as Wilson Ramos and Adrian Salcedo who didn't cost as much to sign.
Generally speaking, do you think it is more cost-effective to put a big bet on one player like Sano (who cost $3.15 million), or to make smaller bets on a larger number of players?
NORSETTER: Ideally, you want to be able to do both. The more players you sign, the better the chance that you will get a Big League player. Everybody puts a lot of emphasis on the expensive signing-and for good reason: those are the best prospects. However, even in the draft, the chances of getting an impact player are better after the first round than in the first round itself. A third of the first rounders chosen will have no value whatsoever. A third will have fringy value (meaning they are easily replaceable,) and a third will be everyday players or better. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that you punt on the first round because the odds are that you are going to spend money that in two thirds of the time will yield not much more that a six-year free agent. There is the always the lure of that magic one-third coloring your decisions.
In the international world, those numbers are even more distant because you are signing players who are not only from another country and another culture: they are still going through adolescence, their tools are still developing, their makeup is still evolving. It is difficult to make a lot of characterizations concerning the million dollar international players because the data set is so small and so recent-the first round type dollars are relatively new in Latin America and elsewhere-but there are already flameouts and washouts.
I would think that the percentage of international million dollar bonus babies creeping into the select set of solid major league contributors will be less that in the first round of the domestic draft. Even among the teams that have spent big internationally, some of the best players were low money signs (think Hanley Ramirez et al.) However, you never want to walk away from Miguel Cabrera or King Felix.
In the free agent world, there are usually going to be 29 teams who think the 30th team overpaid for the top end players. However, the top end players are there for a reason-they either have the current tools, body, and skill set, or they are so easily and comfortably projectable that you just assume that they will develop them (and pay as such.) Every team wants to get the top end players. They are better prospects than the rest. However, there are plenty of teams that have shown you can get good players out of Latin America and elsewhere without jumping into the top end market.
There is also another dynamic at work; the teams that spend the most get the most attention from the agents. I know a few teams that spent a lot of money in Latin America the last couple of years essentially just to broadcast to Buscones that they are in the market and will spend money like the big boys. The hope is that the Buscones start delivering the better prospects to team's doorstep.
There are agents in Asia who feel like the Twins aren't worthy of their attention because we haven't signed the most expensive players. They don't even bother trying to sell their players to us. Which is a bit short sighted because we have shown that if we think a player is worth the money, we will spend the money to get the player. Sometimes an agent will get offended if you don't think a player is worth the money they are looking for. If they know that you are willing to spend money in general, they don't get as offended-they will still come back to you with their next guy. If they don't think you are ever going to be a player in the market, they won't waste their time. It really doesn't bother us-we still scout the players and make evaluations. The difference is that we might have to drive a couple of hours to see the player instead of having the player delivered to our doorstep. We're used to hard work, so it's no big deal. There are scouts who actually get picked up at the airport by agents. The agent essentially works as their chaperone. The club is relying on the agent to do the job of a scout.
SICKELS: The Twins are putting more resources into Latin America. The team always had a good operation in Venezuela, but is now focusing more resources on the Dominican Republic. Given the organization's willingness to invest in unusual places, has there been any consideration of trying to develop players from other spots in Latin America that haven't been looked at as often by other teams, or where baseball is less popular, such as Haiti, Columbia, Brazil, or the smaller nations in Central America?
NORSETTER: We have already signed players from smaller nations in Central America. We just don't make a lot of noise about it. One of the first players I ever scouted was Jose Pett from Brazil. I hired a Portuguese interpreter to speak with him and his coach. Jose had never heard of the Minnesota Twins. His coach did, however: "Ah, Kirby Puckett!!". That was back in 1991-1992, and we had just won the World Series. Jose Pett said that he ‘kinda' heard of the Los Angeles Dodgers, so I didn't feel quite so slighted. Brazilian baseball had come from Japan, not North America. There was very little knowledge, much less interest, in major league baseball. Most of the coaches were Japanese.
SICKELS: The Twins haven't shown much interest in Cuba. Could that change when/if the island opens up? The old Senators had a strong connection there, so there is some historical precedent.
NORSETTER Not sure where you get the belief that we haven't shown much interest in Cuba. We have a lot of interest in Cuba. I think the press equates spending large amounts of money with "interest." We have signed Cuban players, both past and present. Tony Oliva is an icon. Even though we haven't signed the big time free agents, we scout them just as hard as the next team. We have to operate within a budget and make decisions that work within our revenue stream.
SICKELS: What I meant was that the Twins haven't signed any of the big Cuban names, but I understand what you're saying about the budget limits. On the other hand, the Twins have been pioneers in Australia and also scout Canada aggressively, although right now there don't seem to be any Justin Morneaus or even Grant Balfours on the horizon. Luke Hughes is on the 40-man roster and looks like he could be a good utility player, but do any of the Australians at the lower levels look like they could develop into regulars?
NORSETTER: Hopefully Luke can stay healthy. He has some latent power that can really turn into something if he can stay on the field for a full season.
James Beresford has a chance to be a very good player. He is still physically immature. I'm not sure that he is even shaving yet. When he fills out and develops his man strength, he could be a breakout type player. He has exceptional self confidence and drive. Rory Rhodes is an athletic third baseman with light tower power. He is coming off of arm surgery, and is still quite a long ways off, but he should be interesting. His defense will depend on how his arm comes back. Before he got hurt he could show a plus arm at times. It takes longer for taller players to develop, so it might take some time with Rory. However, he is a quality kid with quality makeup. I'm certainly looking forward to following his progress this year.
SICKELS: James Beresford made noise in the World Baseball Conference. Does he have the potential to be a regular or is he more of a future utility type?
NORSETTER: My own personal biased opinion is that James Beresford can be as good as he wants to be. He needs to get much stronger. I joked with him in the off season that he is two years away from being strong enough to look like a big leaguer and not the bat boy. He will get much stronger-he comes from a big, strong family-but it will still take some time. He has always been the skinniest kid on every team he has ever played on--however he has always been one of, if not the best player on every team he has played on. He finds a way to get it done, even when he seems too weak to lift a weighted bat.
SICKELS: His teammate Brad Tippett showed sharp command in the Beloit rotation, but does he have enough stuff to project as a major league starter?
NORSETTER: The comp when Tippett signed was Brad Radke. Pitchers who can command the ball and have multiple pitches have success. That is him. He has a frame that can still put on 20-30 pounds, and he is still physically underdeveloped, so when the maturation kicks in and he develops some strength, his stuff should improve. He will never be a blower, but if he is one of those guys who could have a lot of success even if his velocity doesn't pick up much more. He will never be a gun guy.
SICKELS: Scouting reports indicate that Liam Hendriks has better stuff than Tippett and he also flashes good command. Is he a breakthrough candidate for 2010?
NORSETTER: Absolutely. Liam can show four firm pitches with command and makeup. He is exceptionally competitive. When I was scouting him, he reminded me a bit of Jeff Suppan in Double-A, back in 1995. Liam should have at least an average fastball. There is a good chance that it could be better than that. He is a very good athlete. His father was an Aussie Rules Football star, and Liam was on track to go that same route. Fortunately, he chose baseball instead. He has that same drive and competitiveness that Beresford has. I'm sure that both of them really believe that they can play in the majors right now. They don't back down from any situation.
SICKELS: Are there any other Australian players we need to be looking for in '10?
NORSETTER: Allen de San Miguel projects as a backup receiver. He played at three different levels up to Double-A last year. He would be entering his senior year if he was in college. He has had struggles with his physical conditioning and weight in the past, and he has never hit for much of an average. However, the last couple of years he has figured out how to get on base, and has always been able to play defense.
Matthew Williams just keeps getting people out. He is a plus makeup kid with fringy stuff and a forkball. He will have to continue to get people out, but he has always put up quality numbers. (NOTE: Williams posted a 2.88 ERA with a 30/5 K/BB in 25 innings at Fort Myers last year).
SICKELS: Europe is where the Twins have been especially creative. The organization has a long-standing historical connection with the Netherlands, given Bert Blyleven's origins. Although Loek Van Mil is still understandably raw, he earned a spot on the 40-man roster this winter. Does he have a shot at appearing in the majors this year? What is his long-term upside?
NORSETTER: Loek is still in the development process. He most likely will not appear in the majors this year. When I first scouted Loek, he was topping out at 78. Now he tops out at 98. He can show you two current plus pitches, and they both have gotten better every year.
You mentioned earlier that you thought that the Twins didn't have much interest in Cuba: If there were to be pitcher throwing 94-96 with an 87 slider who defects from the Cuban team, we would not be able to sign him. That is why we are in the developing markets like Europe. You hope that you can get a player like Loek when there isn't much interest in him, and develop him into somebody who demands a lot of interest. There's never been an athletic 7-1 pitcher with power stuff in the majors, so the upside could be rather...wait for it...tall.
Loek still has to figure some things out. He has battled arm injuries and arm fatigue, and needs to learn how to take care of his arm for an entire season. He is still learning how to command his stuff. He is still learning how to pitch.
One of the beautiful things about the Twins is that there isn't the pressure to promote that there is in some organizations. There can be more natural development. There isn't the need to rush through the system. In some systems there might be the urge to rush somebody like Loek. Not here. Our prospects have to learn how to pitch and to be a professional, and they have to demonstrate that they know how to pitch and that they know how to be a professional before they are brought up. Loek is still in that process.
SICKELS: Another Dutch pitcher, Tim Stuifbergen, made a name for himself in the World Baseball Classic. He looks like he has terrific command. Where is he ticketed to begin '10 and how soon could he advance? Would you say his upside is as an inning-eating number three starter, or does he have more than that in him?
NORSETTER: I would imagine that Tommy will start in Beloit. For me, the comp was Nick Blackburn, and he has shown that he is on that path. He is still developing, and he has to stay healthy. He missed all of 2008. This year, some of his control numbers were other-worldly. One game, he threw his fastball 41 times-39 of them were strikes. He didn't even make the top 30 lists for some pundits, which is weird.
Part of the problem is that he is an international player without a draft round associated to him, or a high bonus pedigree. At the World Junior Championships in Cuba a few years back, he was named the Most Valuable Pitcher. He pitched successfully against the Cuban senior team when he was 17.
The first words out of his mouth when he walked off the mound in Holland's historic win against the Dominican Republic in the WBC last year were "I'm gonna take Papi off my fantasy team-he can't hit an inside fastball." And at the World Cup in Europe last year he was outstanding.
He has issues with his conditioning, and with his emotional control on the mound at times, but he can really pitch. His numbers are not a fluke. He has a heavy sinker at 86-88, but can get his fastball to 93. He is my candidate for a big breakout year.
SICKELS: The big name signed out of Europe this year was outfielder Max Kepler, signed out of Germany for $800,000. Baseball America went so far as to rank him as the Number Ten Twins prospect, obvious testament to his terrific athleticism. But that ranking struck me as pretty aggressive, given the fact that he's still just 17 years old and hasn't faced good pitching yet. He has all the tools, but how does his skill level compare to other players his age?
NORSETTER: Kepler held his own in Instructional League-and he was 16 at the time. His skill level compared to other players his own age is obviously quite advanced. He experience level, however, is not. I'm not sure how many high school players who were just out of the 10th grade would be able to compete in the Florida Instructional League. Max would attend 11th-grade classes at high school in Ft Myers in the morning, and then walk across the street and strap up with the professionals in instructs in the afternoon.
This winter he passed his GED, and will be a full time professional baseball player in the spring. Let's wait until after his first year of actually playing baseball to see where his prospect status stands. Ten could be aggressive, or it might turn out to be light. Jay Bruce, Shawn Green, were some of the comps that have been thrown out there. He is a tremendous prospect.
SICKELS: Everyone talks about the culture shock that players from Latin America face when they come to North America, but what about players from Australia or Europe? The Australians at least have less of a language barrier to overcome than the Germans, Russians, Czechs, or Dutch, but are the cultural differences difficult to adjust to, especially for the Europeans? Does the organization do anything specific to help them get used to the United States?
NORSETTER: We have a Russian pitcher in the system, Andrey Lobanov, who had a terrific year. He is a prospect. His first year he had a teammate from Russia, Nikolay Lobanov, who spoke English fluently. This year he was on his own. We spoke to him at the beginning of the year, and he was comfortable with being on his own. He had a great year.
Almost all the other Europeans we have signed are fluent in English. A lot of these guys speak three or four languages. They are all well educated.
They have great life styles back home. People are sometimes shocked to find out that there are easier places to live than in the United States. For the players coming from The Netherlands and Germany especially, it is a bit like going to the wild west. Cities are cleaner and safer back home. There is less crime. There is less danger. It is easier to get around. I think most of them find the USA exciting and different.
One of the criticisms I've heard is that the Europeans lack the passion for the game. I personally don't buy that line of thought. They play because they want to, not because they have to play. In the Dominican Republic it used to be said that the only way to make money was either baseball, the army, or drugs. Baseball is a way out.
The Aussies and Europeans will all have comfortable lives to go back to if baseball doesn't pan out. In some ways it can be more of a challenge for the development people. There is a tendency to assume that since they speak English and look American, they can be treated like any other American ball player. That is just not the case. If a player from the Midwest is homesick, he can just call home. Family and friends can go watch him play. If you're from Australia, you have to call in the middle of the night, and there is probably no way your family and friends are going to be able to see you play.
We've been a bit lucky because we have had so many Aussies in the system, and they all look after each other. Having said that, we've still had problems with Aussies the same way we've had problems with Americans and Latin players. Peter Moylan is a player who couldn't handle it the first time around. Now he's an established big leaguer. He's well-liked. Any differences or personality quirks he has are colorful or endearing.
The Asian players have a greater set of obstacles to overcome. There is the language, the time difference, the cultural difference, and the difference in diet. We've had three Koreans on the GCL roster for the past couple of years. There is safety in numbers. We've also linked up the players to people in the Korean community in Ft Myers. We have Lin Wang-Wei from Taiwan whom we like. Unfortunately, he has been hurt for the past couple of years. One year it was arm surgery. Last year, he was off to a fantastic start, and then broke his jaw in a horrible collision. Hopefully he can stay healthy this year. He now speaks English and is used to life in Ft Myers.
The first year is all about adjustments to the things surrounding the actual game. The first year is a bit of a mulligan for these players. For the Asian and European players that we sign, instead of bringing them over to the states immediately, we might send them to MLBAAP academy in Australia. That way they become a bit more versed in English. It's a bit easier for the Asians since the time difference isn't as great as it is in the states--they can stay in better touch with their families. The Europeans who aren't ready to compete in the GCL have a chance to develop in Australia in a system where they are not immediately over their heads. We've also sent European kids to play in Australia in the winter. They get immersed in the language, and they get a bit of catch up in at-bats and innings.
SICKELS: Howard, this has been an amazing interview. Thanks!!