FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins had an international pool of $3,948,500 for the signing period from July 2, 2015, to June 15, 2016, and they gave all of that to shortstop Wander Javier, plus another $51,500 in overage.
The $4 million bonus surpassed the Twins’ record of $3.15 million that was paid to Miguel Sano in 2009. There was much less projection with Sano; his physical maturity was such that it was one reason for a monthslong major league investigation into his birthdate.
That wasn’t the case with Javier. He had turned 16 on Dec. 29, 2014. He was approaching 6 feet and weighed 165 pounds. “I was skinny,’’ Javier said.
This was confirmed with a slight laugh from Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel.
“When Freddy first had me look at him, you could’ve wrapped your thumb and forefinger around his ankle … he had very thin legs,’’ Radcliff said. “He also had outstanding actions in the infield, and you could project him as a hitter when he added strength.’’
Fred Guerrero is the Twins’ supervisor in Latin America. Radcliff believes in him like a brother. What’s the degree of difficulty in assessing the future of a 16-year-old in the Dominican compared to an 18-year-old U.S. high schooler?
“We don’t have the luxury of making those decisions at 16,’’ Radcliff said. “If you wait until then, it’s too late. You better know by 14 whether you want in; not making deals, you can’t do that, but showing the player’s ‘trainer’ that you’re interested.’’
It’s a different world in the Dominican Republic. Mandatory education ends at age 13 or 14. By then, the trainers have been teaching baseball skills to youngsters eight hours a day for several years, and the potential signees have started to emerge.
Bob Motzko, the Gophers’ men’s hockey coach, mentioned in a conversation last month the increasing pressure on college coaches to make recruiting commitments to skilled 15-year-olds.
Imagine doing that with slender 14-year-olds on the baseball fields of the Dominican who must master the toughest skill in sports: hitting a baseball.
Three-and-a-half years after giving Javier those $4 million, allowing him to “take care of his mother,’’ Milagros, back home in Bonao, Dominican Republic, the Twins like what they have seen.
He is 6-1 and still lean, although Wander insists that he now weighs 200 pounds. The Twins remain convinced in his ability. There’s one major problem:
They haven’t seen enough of Javier to be wide-eyed in their optimism. He’s now 20 and has played 50 official games with 183 at-bats in three seasons of his pro career.
“We need to get him on the field,’’ Radcliff said. “He has to go out and play.’’
Javier’s pro career started in 2016 in the DSL, the Dominican rookie league. He played in nine games, limited by a variety of ailments, but also that “skinny’’ frame.
The Twins’ development people in the Dominican felt it was more important for Javier to get stronger than to play. Thus, nine games that first summer and then 41 productive games with rookie Elzabethton, Tenn., in 2017 before being shut down because of pain in his left shoulder.
A winter-long effort at rehab didn’t succeed, and in May 2018, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum. As Javier recovered and rehabbed, Wander basically became a permanent resident of the dormitory at the Twins’ Florida complex.
There weren’t many other players after the end of instructional camp last fall. “Some days, I thought I was the only player in the building,’’ said Javier, through Victor Gonzalez, the Florida operations manager for the Twins, and the interpreter for this interview.
The surgery was on Javier’s non-throwing shoulder — you just don’t see many lefty throwers at shortstop — and he says that at this moment he’s “perfect.’’ Shoulder’s good and he’s stronger, with another 10 pounds of muscle to come, if Wander has his way.
“We knew when we signed Miguel as a shortstop that he was going to have to move very soon,’’ Radcliff said. “Wander’s a shortstop. That’s his position.’’
Last week, the player in the batting cage next to Javier was Royce Lewis, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2017 and recipient of a $6.7 million bonus. He’s still 19 and has played 175 games with 774 at-bats while moving through all four levels of rookie and Class A teams in two seasons.
“Very nice guy … we’re already friends,’’ Javier said.
The reporter said: “He’s a shortstop. If things work out, one of you will have to move?’’
Javier looked at Gonzalez, then said, “That would be good.’’
That would mean the combined $10.7 million in bonuses had paid off for the Twins.