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Minors : : General
Miguel Sanó: Pelotero
Nick Kappel        
Published: Thursday, September 06, 2012

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — "When you deal in baseball, young kids, it's like when you go and harvest the land. You put the seed in the land, and then you put water in it, you clear it. You do all of this and when it grows – you sell it. It's just the way it is."

That’s how a
buscón (trainer) from the Dominican Republic, Astin Jacobo Jr., described the landscape of Latin America baseball in “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” a documentary released in July.

The film followed two of the Dominican’s top prospects in 2009, Miguel Angel Sanó and Jean Carlos Batista as they prepared for July 2, Major League Baseball’s international signing date.

Youth baseball in the United States is much different than youth baseball in the Dominican Republic.

In the U.S., thousands of teenage boys travel the country year-round playing in Perfect Game’s most prestigious events in newly-constructed facilities. Some of these fields host major league spring training games. Thousands of seats, freshly cut green grass and perfectly groomed fields are taken for granted.

These young men balance their baseball travels with studies throughout high school, many of them destined for a university scholarship or to hear their name called by Bud Selig at the June amateur draft.

In the Dominican, an impoverished country that promises nothing but a bleak future, baseball is a young boy’s only chance. Many drop out of school at an early age—like Sano did when he was 12—and join a baseball academy. There, it’s baseball all day, every day. They eat, sleep and breathe baseball as they work with their buscónes until they turn 16, the earliest age they can sign with an MLB team.

“For little kids in the Dominican, it’s tough to see things like we see (in the U.S.),” Sano told Perfect Game through a translator last week. “Poor countries, we don’t have too much money to do stuff like you guys do here. But baseball gives them a lot of opportunities. Those people can secure their family’s lives for many years.”

But it’s not that easy.

After many international signees in recent years were found to have lied about their age, name or both, MLB began investigating each one who wished to sign. Any speculation could scare teams away and force the player’s signing bonus to drop.

In July 2008, Dominican right-hander Michael Ynoa signed a then-Latin American record $4.25 million bonus with the Oakland Athletics. A year later, Sano—a 6-foot-3, 195-pound 16-year-old once-in-a-lifetime-prospect—was expected to draw an even bigger bonus.

But when MLB discovered that his mom, Melania had a miscarriage when she was 17 years old, they launched an investigation to uncover the top prospect’s true identity.

After a bone scan that confirmed Sano’s age to be between 16 and 18, a DNA test that proved with 99.348 percent certainty that Melania was his birth mother and a stack of documents that corroborated Sano’s claim—that he was in fact 16 years old, MLB ended their investigation July 24—three weeks after Sano was first eligible to sign. Their conclusion: There wasn’t enough evidence to verify Sano’s age. Teams were free to sign him—at their own risk.

Two months later, Sano signed with the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million, half of what he’d initially hoped for.

Though he may have been robbed of a record signing bonus, the amount he did receive was more than enough to make the impoverished 16-year-old and his family happy. He used part of his signing bonus to buy a house in the Dominican Republic, complete with multiple bedrooms and a pool, much nicer than the shack he and seven family members previously lived in while sleeping on rotted-out mattresses.

“As soon as he got the money, a lot of people around him got better,” Beloit Snappers Manager Nelson Prada said. “I’ve been around a lot of big leaguers and they like to help, which is a good thing. They do charity and help their family a lot.”

Now in his third year as a professional baseball player, Sano—whose nickname is “Bocatón,” meaning “big lips”—has lived up to the hype. In January, PG Scouting Coordinator Todd Gold ranked Sano the top prospect in the Twins’ organization.

After hitting .292/.352/.637 with 20 home runs in 293 plate appearances during his full-season debut in the Rookie Level Appalachian League in 2011, Sano has exceeded expectations in 2012. The now 19-year-old hit .258/.373/.521 with 60 extra base hits in 553 plate appearances with Low-A Beloit this season. His 28 home runs led the Midwest League—nine more than the next closest player. He also drew 80 walks (second best) and struck out 144 times (fourth worst).

But Sano’s bat has never been in question. His defense however, may be holding him back. In 125 games at third base this year, Sano committed 42 errors.

Prada is quick to point out that Sano has improved as the season has progressed.

“He had 30 (errors) in the first half, but only 11 in the second half and that’s a big improvement,” he said.

Sano started taking grounders at shortstop in the second half, and Prada believes that’s helped improve his range at third base.

“At third base, there’s a wall at the foul line and you don’t move there too much,” Prada said. “So you put him at shortstop and he moves to the sides more and he can read the ball and attack.

“He knows he’s got to be better at reading ground balls. A lot of times he stays back when he’s supposed to charge, and he charges when he’s supposed to stay back. So reading the ball is important for him.”

Prada is confident, however, that Sano’s defensive woes are due to his young age and inexperience. As he continues to improve, there’s no telling how good he’ll become.

“My goal of course is to make it to the big leagues. And not only make it, but stay,” Sano said. “I want to put up numbers like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. For me, being in the big leagues is more than being a good player; you have to be the package.”

“It’s like when you’re looking for your wife,” Prada explained. “You’re not just looking on the outside, you want to have the complete package. Those guys in the big leagues have the skills to play in the big leagues, but they’re humble guys and they know how to treat people and help people. You have to be special to be there. And he knows you have to follow the rules, listen to the coaches and apply yourself to get there.”


Perfect Game scouting report (Todd Gold):

Sano has grown significantly over the past three years since signing with the Twins and has a massive frame that suggests he will continue to add further strength. Signed as a shortstop, he has transitioned over to third base as a professional. His present quickness and athleticism give him the ability to be a quality defender at third base at the minor league level, though his defensive play is alarmingly nonchalant, interrupted with occasional bursts of impressive athleticism. He shows at times that he is capable of making difficult plays look easy, but he tends to play with minimal energy in the field. He has seen time at first base and with his physical projection it seems likely that he will move there full-time down the road.

The conundrum with Sano is that he makes the game look effortless. While that is a positive thing, scouts can’t help but question the energy level and he appears to play down to his competition at times. The raw tools are off the charts, with plus-plus bat speed and massive raw power. He even offers the bonus of a plus arm and surprising athleticism for his size. His approach at the plate comes and goes, he controls at-bats at times and is a spectator in the box other times. Of course, it’s important to consider the context of a 19-year old player his first full season playing in a pitching-dominated environment. In spite of the areas where he needs to refine his game, the upside on Sano is tremendous.

Sano’s calling card will be his power, which comes easy and he frequently drives the ball a long way even when he doesn’t square the ball up. That ability should allow him to not only hit 30-plus home runs a year, but could also allow him to post solid averages as well. He’s patient enough to take the pitches he should take, though his walk rate is a bit skewed by the fact that he’s the Midwest League’s most feared power threat and is pitched accordingly. The pure hit tool has a ways to go and will be the biggest x-factor towards determining whether he’ll be a high strikeout/low average power threat or a true offensive force at the big league level. Either way he has plenty of bat to justify his likely eventual move to 1B.





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