FORT MYERS, FLA. – For all of the consternation in the Twin Cities over Joe Mauer’s contract and lack of production, the Twins generally win when they pitch well, and become unwatchable when they pitch poorly, regardless of the health or productivity of their position players.
Their rotation began to falter in 2011, starting a three-year backslide toward oblivion. When Terry Ryan replaced Bill Smith as the Twins general manager that fall, he began pushing to rebuild the organization’s pitching competence and depth.
He traded for Alex Meyer, who could soon become the Twins ace. He traded for Trevor May, who has been the Twins’ most impressive minor league pitcher this season. The Twins took the impressive Kohl Stewart with the fourth pick in the 2013 draft. And the Twins took a sleeper with the 32nd pick in the 2012 draft.
“Jose Berrios is a No. 1 or No. 2,” said Class A Fort Myers manager Doug Mientkiewicz. “And if he’s a No. 2, that means we have an awfully good No. 1. His stuff is electric, and he wants to be great.”
Mientkiewicz is predicting that Berrios will become a front-line starter in the big leagues. Which is funny, considering Berrios wasn’t even a full-time pitcher until recently.
Berrios grew up playing shortstop in Puerto Rico. His high school didn’t field a team, so he played for his father in his country’s version of travel ball. Occasionally, he would be asked to act as a closer.
When the draft approached, his adviser told him that he would he drafted earlier as a pitcher than as a shortstop.
“I said, OK, no problem, I’ll be a pitcher,” Berrios said. “I love baseball. I’ll play whatever position I need to — pitcher, catcher, infielder — to keep playing.”
He chose wisely, and when the Twins selected him, Berrios thrust both fists into the air and held them there while tears streamed down his cheeks.
In pro ball, Berrios, a righthander, has demonstrated that his passion for the game is real, and so is his stuff.
Pitching at advanced Class A Fort Myers at age 20, Berrios is 5-2 with a 2.24 ERA while facing mostly older, more experienced hitters. On June 1, he pitched his best game as a pro, giving up only one hit and striking out 13 in a seven-inning shutout of the Tampa Yankees.
One of his fastballs reached 98 mph. “His last pitch of the game was a slider,” Mientkiewicz said. “It broke so much that the hitter swung at it — and it hit him in the shin.”
Berrios followed that start up by giving up two earned runs in eight innings in a no-decision against Lakeland, a Tigers affiliate, Friday. He had nine strikeouts in that game.
Berrios calls that “slider” a curveball, or a “slurve.” He also throws a changeup that helps keep lefthanders off-balance.
Listed at 6 feet, 187 pounds, he’s not big, but is built like a middleweight boxer.
“He’s in tremendous shape,” Mientkiewicz said. “He does everything we could ask of him and more. I came in one day at noon, for a 7 p.m. game. He had pitched the night before, and he was already fully sweating, running on a back field.
“You don’t get that kind of drive from many 20-year-olds. That’s what big-leaguers do. This kid’s got it.”
Berrios made the Florida State League All-Star team. When pitching coach Gary Lucas asked him recently what his goals were for the rest of the season, Berrios told him he wants to pitch in the Futures Game, the showcase for the best minor leaguers in baseball that will precede the All-Star Game at Target Field, and that he wants to be called up to Class AA New Britain “and finish the season strong and healthy.”
His father, Angel, flies in from Puerto Rico to see him pitch with Jose’s brother, also named Angel. “My father played pro baseball for one year,” Berrios said. “My father and my brother are my inspiration.”
Meyer, May, Stewart and Berrios have infused the Twins farm system with stuff and promise.
“Hopefully we keep this kid moving in the right direction,” Mientkiewicz said. “Because he can pitch.”
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org