Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president of player personnel, is one of the franchise’s greatest scouts. He started with the team in 1987 as an area scout before becoming director of scouting in 1993.
One of the Twins’ great scouting hauls is really paying off this season. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano were all international signees in 2009.
Even though Polanco was the American League’s starting All-Star shortstop this season and Sano is having a productive year despite not playing until May 16 because of a heel injury, the surprise of that class has to be Kepler, who is leading the team in home runs (36) and runs scored (96) and is third in RBI (90) while primarily hitting leadoff.
And while the team has been dealing with several injuries this season, the news that Kepler is battling chest tightness and is temporarily out of the lineup could be the biggest blow of all.
Radcliff took a lot of pride in signing Kepler, but said the outfielder’s success is a product of his hard work and patience from the organization.
“He didn’t play a lot of baseball as a youth; he was a soccer guy,” Radcliff said. “But his mom is actually from Texas and his grandpa taught him how to play baseball. We started watching him when he was 15 years old in Germany, where his mom and dad lived. They are ballet dancers. I think we beat out about five teams in the end when we were negotiating and trying to sign him. … There were four or five teams at the end that we beat out to get him.”
Radcliff was leading the scouting department at that time, but said the Kepler signing was the result of hard work by the Twins’ international scouts.
“I give all the credit to Howard Norsetter and Glenn Godwin and Andy Johnson,” Radcliff said. “Those are the guys that scouted him the most over there in Europe while we were watching him.”
Developed into a star
Did he think Kepler could have this kind of career at that time?
“Not back then, no,” Radcliff said. “But you know he was a talented athlete, his makeup kind of stood out because he was really mature for his age and focused and everything. We saw tools to be good, but 40 home runs, 40 doubles — you know, all the things he’s getting ready to do — I’m not sure anybody could have predicted that.”
Through his first four minor league seasons, Kepler hit .269 in 799 at-bats in 207 games while hitting only 20 home runs. His transformation into the player he is today took some time.
“It’s really a success story of so many people,” Radcliff said. “We brought him in with very little baseball background and our player development guys had a lot of patience. I can tell you stories about sitting with scouts in the instructional league and rookie ball and A-ball watching him play, and [none of the other scouts] thought he was any good, because he never did much.
“He just learned the game … but never did much. But our guys were patient. We felt he had a little different makeup, which turned out to be true, and he was able to apply those physical abilities that he always had and he turned them into real skills now that are major league quality.”
Radcliff said Kepler’s biggest jump came in 2015 at Class AA Chattanooga, where former Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was his manager. Kepler hit .322 with nine homers, 32 doubles, 13 triples and 71 RBI in 112 games that season.
“You started seeing the talent, especially in Double-A when Mientkiewicz started working with him and got him to hit the ball harder and drive it harder,” he said. “You started seeing the possibilities.”
Polanco could hit
While Kepler was the unheralded star of that international class, Radcliff said the organization had the highest early expectations for Polanco.
“He was the same year as Kepler and Sano, and those are the guys that got all the [publicity], but I have to tell you, [Twins scout] Fred Guerrero had tremendous belief in Polanco and that was the same deal,” Radcliff said. “You start watching him at 14 and 15 and sign him at 16. He was very mature. He could already speak English. He had a real good understanding of who he was, even at a really, really young age.”
Radcliff said the organization always had faith in Polanco’s hitting ability, but they didn’t foresee the power numbers he’s produced this season. The shortstop already has posted career highs in home runs (21), doubles (34), runs (94), slugging percentage (.485) and on base-plus-slugging percentage (.847).
“He has gotten a lot bigger and stronger, [but] I don’t know that we projected 20 home runs,” Radcliff said. “But we thought he’d be able to play short, be a good hitter and have a lot of positive things. But he has gone beyond our expectations. Again, 20 home runs, I don’t think we thought he’d be able to do that.”
Sano could be great
For all the success Polanco and Kepler have experienced this season, Radcliff still thinks the highest ceiling in the group belongs to Sano, who has turned his career around with a career high in slugging percentage (.546) and is one home run short of his career high with 27. The third baseman hit 28 in 2017.
“That’s the longest story of all of them,” Radcliff said. “He’s still a work in progress. He and Polanco are buddies, played together when they were young, you know, in the Dominican, kind of from the same neighborhood over there in San Pedro [de Macoris]. Polanco was mature for his age, stood out, his presence was really noticeable, and Sano [was] just a goofy kid.
“He is starting to come on, and I think [Nelson] Cruz and a lot of those guys have had a positive effect on him. He is still untapped. He has more ceiling than all of them. He has a chance to do big things. But he still has to continue to mature and make sure he keeps his body and weight and all of that stuff together, which you know has been a big problem. But you can see signs where it’s all coming together.”
As the Twins continue to push for their first AL Central title since 2010, that trio of international signees from 2009 have made all the difference in turning the franchise around.
“Yeah, how about that?” Radcliff said. “Same international draft year, all of them 16 [years old] — Kepler, Sano, Polanco, same year. Pretty good.”