FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins signed Willians Astudillo as a minor league free agent on Nov. 29. The 26-year-old from Barcelona, Venezuela, barely paused to take notice, occupied as he was playing all over the diamond for Caribes Tribu of the Venezuelan Winter League.
Astudillo’s primary locations were catcher, left field, first base and third base. The versatility belies his stout frame, which is listed at 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds. He played in 55 of 63 regular-season games, helped them to victory in the playoffs, and then went 8-for-18 as Caribes went 2-3 in the Caribbean World Series.
The great Cesar Tovar went from the Twins to play a full winter schedule in that league, then was famous for showing up late to spring training in Orlando because of “visa problems.”
Considering the tensions between the United States and Venezuela, there’s less skepticism about Astudillo’s visa problem that caused him to be a week late here.
Plus, Astudillo, 26, wanted to be here to make a favorable impression, in the hope this will be the summer to make his major league debut after eight seasons in the U.S. (plus 2013, missed after Tommy John surgery).
Astudillo was signed by the Phillies at 17. “I was a shortstop,” he said.
Shortstop? “I was smaller,” said Astudillo, meaning horizontally.
He was with the Phillies for seven years, then Atlanta and Arizona the past two. Arizona had him at Class AAA Reno last season and that club played the seven-day disabled list game with him, putting him on the list when in need of a roster spot.
Astudillo had received attention for neither striking out nor walking. He has 2,154 plate appearances in the minors, with 75 walks and 67 strikeouts. He’s not a slap hitter; he just doesn’t wait to hack.
Then came a new notoriety on Monday night in Tampa:
Astudillo was catching and picked off the Yankees’ Shane Robinson at first — with a no-look soft toss from his haunches. Presto, the man who doesn’t walk or strike out was an Internet sensation for not having to look to throw accurately a baseball.
“I saw the runner out there a little extra,” he said, “I said, ‘It might work.’ ”
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More notes on Willians Astudillo:
• His father is also Willians, a former shortstop in Venezuela. Brother Wilfred, 17, is a catcher in the Mets system.
• Combining eight years in minors and three winters in Venezuela, he has 92 walks and 68 hit-by-pitches — including 10 walks and 13 HBPs in the Florida State League in 2013.
• Twins plan to have Astudillo start season at Class AAA Rochester as a backup catcher and utility player.