FORT MYERS, FLA. – Brusdar Graterol comes from Calabozo, an inland city of 130,000 in Venezuela. Asked when he became devoted to baseball, the Twins’ 20-year-old pitching prospect gave an incredulous look and said:
“Always. My first memories include baseball. My family loves baseball. And softball. My grandmother and mother played softball. My grandfather, Leovardo Castillo … baseball means so much to him.
“When I was young, he told me to play all the positions, to enjoy them all, to find out where I was the best.”
That turned out to be pitching. Graterol was invited to Venezuela’s version of showcases for prospects. As the international signing period approached in July 2014, there was encouragement on the home front to be prepared.
“My mother, she would tell me in the morning, ‘Get out of bed; go run,’ ” Graterol said. “Every morning. ‘Run.’ ”
Teenage prospects in the Dominican have become the lifeblood of major league baseball; there’s still talent in Venezuela, but cultivating it has become more difficult with the political and economic upheaval that has reached another crisis point in that country.
No matter the geography, it’s still mostly projection when prospects are signed at age 16. Graterol was 6 feet, 170 pounds and threw 87 miles per hour when Jose Leon, the Twins’ supervisor of scouting in Venezuela, signed him for a $150,000 bonus in the 2014-15 international signing period.
Four years later, he is 6-1, weighs 220 (or more) and throws 100 miles per hour when he has the urge. That often came on the first pitch in the 11 starts Graterol made after he was promoted to the high-Class A Fort Myers Miracle last summer.
“He got in a habit of starting the game by throwing 101, inside,” said Marshall Kelner, the play-by-play announcer for the Miracle. “That would get everybody’s attention.”
The chaos in Venezuela has led to baseball organizations sending Venezuelan prospects to facilities in the Dominican to start pro careers. The Dominican Summer League is where Graterol first pitched as a 16-year-old.
He made four starts. He pitched 11 innings. And then he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in the Twin Cities.
Graterol held up four fingers, shook his head and said: “I was down in the dumps. I wondered if my career was over before it started.”
This interview was conducted through an interpreter, although it was apparent immediately that Graterol is something of a character — a big personality with much humor.
He was brought from the Dominican to the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers after the elbow injury. Basically, he became a resident of the dormitory that’s a couple hundred yards away from the Twins’ workout and rehab facilities here.
Graterol went through the customary Tommy John rehab in 2016, not pitching that season, living in the dorm, and putting on 40 pounds. How did he gain the weight?
“Food,” he said, pointing across the way to the dorm. “There’s good food over there, and it’s free.”
Victor Gonzalez, the interpreter for the interview and also manager of the team’s Florida operations, said: “And working out. Brusdar works as hard as anybody every day — in the weight room, in everything he does.”
Graterol hasn’t been home to see his family in two years, and they haven’t been to the States to see him. He communicates with his mother and others on FaceTime.
Does Mom cry about not seeing her son for two years?
“She cries, but because she is proud of me, for working so hard and for what I can be as a pitcher,” Graterol said.
Has there been a prominent big-leaguer from Brusdar’s hometown? Answer: “Not yet. Maybe soon.”
The Twins have spent the past three weeks bringing in young pitchers for instructional sessions — on the changeup, breaking pitches, velocity, whatever it is the pitching brain trust has determined a prospect can add to give him the best chance to become a solid big-leaguer.
It’s not one thing fits all, but an analysis of individual pitchers. The add-on sought for Graterol is a more effective changeup. And Brusdar thinks he has found it in his work with Cibney Bello, a fellow Venezuelan entering his third season as a pitching coach in the Twins’ system.
“The changeup is going to be really good for me,” Graterol said. “A starter wants three good pitches. And I’m a starter.”
He’s now 20 and the elbow surgery has left with him with the low total of 142 career innings — with 169 strikeouts and a workable 42 walks. He admits that triple digits on the radar gun and strikeouts are the thrills he seeks on the mound.
Considering the prior torn ligament, has it been suggested by the Twins that he ease it back a bit — maybe to the mid-90s, to go with an excellent slider and now the changeup?
Graterol smiled wide and said: “The Twins have not told me that. The hitters, the opposition, they are the ones that want me to throw softer.”