Fort Myers, Fla. – The Olympic motto is “Faster, higher, stronger.” At Twins spring training camp, there is no sign of the five-ring symbol, but there are five practice fields filled with players displaying baseball’s venerated five tools.
After years of sometimes valuing players more for their refined skills than their athletic ability, the Twins this spring are turning their roster over to fit the motto “Bigger, stronger, faster.”
The first thing you notice on the back fields of the Lee County Sports Complex are a few pitchers who throw fastballs that make that strange sizzling sound, outfielders who look like sprinters and sluggers who frequently threaten the windows of the cars driving past on Plantation Avenue.
“We’re getting back to the old powder-blue Twins,” manager Ron Gardenhire said with a chuckle, remembering Twins teams of the 1980s who stretched gloriously cheesy uniforms over farmer-strong shoulders.
Size is not a requirement in baseball, but for every Dustin Pedroia or Greg Maddux who excels because of skill and not strength, there a dozen stars who look like they could play multiple sports, and probably did. After years of emphasizing skill over athletic ability, the Twins are looking for more size, power, velocity and speed.
“I think you notice it from the bottom up, too, with the younger players,” said Perry Castellano, the Twins strength and conditioning coordinator. “You notice it with Byron Buxton and Kohl Stewart and Miguel Sano. When you take them to do activities on the fields that I have them do and you watch their athleticism, it’s impressive. And it just so happens that they’re all 6-3 and bigger.
“I think baseball goes in cycles, and it’s cycling back to bigger, stronger, more athletic players. I think the Mike Trouts are the players they’re looking for now.”
Trout, the Angels’ star center fielder, is the classic five-tool player, meaning he can hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw. Buxton, the Twins’ top prospect, is displaying Trout’s array of skills and following his career arc, while Sano looks more like a young Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best power hitter in the game.
In free agency, the Twins signed one pitcher who is 6-5 (Phil Hughes) and another listed at 6-2, 235 pounds (Ricky Nolasco.) Seventeen of the 21 pitchers in camp who are on the big-league 40-man roster are 6-2 or taller. Buxton is 6-2 and already considered one of the fastest players in pro ball. Sano is listed as 6-3 and hilariously listed at 195 pounds, while he looks closer to 260. Top pitching prospect Alex Meyer is 6-7, throws 95 and pitches with a downward angle that frustrates hitters.
“We’ve been looking for size, we’ve been looking for athletes, and velo, probably not unlike most teams,” said Rob Antony, Twins vice president of baseball operations. “Where we might once have taken the pitcher who has better command and control, I think we’re also looking for velocity. We’re not necessarily going to take the guy who can throw hard and doesn’t know where it’s going, but a guy who has physical tools and projectability, who you think can throw harder and will throw harder, that’s more attractive to us.
“In terms of position players, Buxton was the perfect pick for us, because he’s athletic and we believe he legitimately can be a five-tool guy. When we were looking to trade Ben Revere and Denard Span for pitching, we believed Meyer and Trevor May had a high ceiling, and Vance Worley had done it in the big leagues, so we thought he could provide some immediate help. That didn’t happen last year. We hope it happens this year.”
In 2011, Liam Hendriks was the Twins’ minor league pitcher of the year. He’s an example of an undersized command-and-control pitcher who succeeded in the minors but lacked the stuff to get out big-league hitters. Since December, he’s been waived by the Twins, Cubs and Orioles.
Now Meyer and Kohl Stewart are considered the Twins’ top pitching prospects. Stewart is 6-3, and Castellano says he’s already one of the most striking athletes in the organization.
“I met with the other pitching coaches in the organization and we were all saying, ‘Look at the size of these kids,’ ” said pitching coach Rick Anderson. “They have height and downward angle on their pitches, and athletic ability. You can’t help but get excited, having big guys with stuff.”
Castellano notes that many of the Twins’ best players and prospects played multiple sports. Joe Mauer, like Paul Molitor before him, played three sports at Cretin-Derham Hall High. Buxton played three sports. Stewart played football. Aaron Hicks chose baseball over golf.
While many parents and youth coaches are demanding specialization, Castellano sees the benefits of being a well-rounded athlete.
“Playing multiple sports gives the body a chance to see something different, to become a more well-rounded athlete,” he said. “By playing soccer, or basketball or football, whether you were good or not, you expose yourself to something different, you give your body and mind a rest from doing something 12 months a year.
“If a kid plays three sports in high school and goes on to college, he’s only got maybe four or five seasons on his throwing arm. If he plays year-round baseball, he’s put 12 seasons on his arm. That might shorten his career.”
Sano has played only one sport, but he’s gifted. When Castellano had him run the three-man basketball weave, Sano quickly looked like he grew up emulating Charles Barkley.
“That put a smile on his face,” Castellano said. “The guy is an athlete.”