Bill Smith was the Twins general manager for four seasons, 2008 to 2011. When you refer to Smith and the international market, the first name mentioned by his critics would be Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a veteran shortstop from Japan.
Nishioka proved incapable of playing shortstop in 2011 spring training, then incapable of playing in the big leagues — a failure of such a proportion that it assisted in getting Smith fired after the 63-win season.
Six years later, the Twins have experienced surprising success through the first quarter of the schedule, and there’s no greater reason than three international signings that came when Smith was running things in the summer of 2009:
Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco, the Dominican left side of the infield, and Max Kepler, the baseball pioneer from Germany in right field.
Smith was contacted on Friday in Connecticut, where he was visiting his parents and playing as the partner of his 86-year-old father, Wee (William Edward), in a Coast Guard Academy golf tournament.
“My dad is class of ’53 and served until 1980,” Smith said. “He started this tournament years ago, and I haven’t been able to play in it too often. When we finished the complex in the Dominican last December and left the Twins, I told Dad: ‘I’m going to be your partner in this event as long as you still want to play.’ ”
As for the topic at hand, the signing of Sano, Polanco and Kepler out of one international market of amateurs, Smith said: “Do me a favor. Keep me out of it. The credit goes to Mike Radcliff and our scouts … Fred Guerrero, Howie Norsetter and others.”
Smith’s praise for Guerrero — a young scout at the time who has continued to get promotions from the Twins for his work in Latin America — was effusive.
“Fred stayed on Sano, stayed in contact with the family, through all of baseball’s investigations into Miguel’s age and proper identification,” Smith said. “He believed that it would cleared up, and that we would have a chance to sign Miguel.”
Radcliff was staying in frequent contact with Rob Plummer, then Sano’s agent, assuring him the Twins would be a candidate until the end of the process.
This was before Major League Baseball attempted to control international spending with budgets for each team. The Twins had a self-imposed budget of a bit more than $2 million, which was middling at the time.
“We had given just under $800,000 to Kepler and $725,000 to Polanco, and signed a number of other players,” Radcliff said. “We were tapped out.”
The initial July 2 signing date had long passed. It was Labor Day and Sano still had not been cleared to sign. Radcliff and Guerrero kept assuring Smith that this was the player — Sano — that had to be an exception for the Twins.
Smith took that message to owner Jim Pohlad and team President Dave St. Peter. Radcliff and Guerrero were OK’d to make a big offer when it was allowed by MLB.
Sano was cleared and, on Sept. 29, it was revealed that he intended to sign with the Twins for a $3.15 million bonus.
“Miguel was a player that everyone wanted,” Radcliff said. “And Polanco and Kepler, if we hadn’t signed them, there were other teams that would have signed them for a similar amount of money.
“That said, yes, it’s unusual to hit on three players like that, as it appears we have, out of the international market in one year.
“Miguel … it would have been a shock if he didn’t make it. Kepler and Polanco were both 16, one from Germany, the other a slender infielder from the Dominican, so you see the talent and hope that it develops.”
Twins manager Paul Molitor had Sano batting third, Kepler fourth and Polanco sixth Friday night. And No. 5 hitter Kennys Vargas was signed in 2009, for $80,000 as a free agent from Puerto Rico (after going undrafted a year earlier).
“You sign those kids at 16, 17, and there’s incredible patience involved for the players, for the development people, for coaches,” Molitor said. “Eight years later, they are all together producing for us. I’d say it has to be unusual to get three out of one signing period.”
Bill Smith wanted no credit; he would have preferred no mention, in fact. Still, it might be time to point to Sano, Polanco and Kepler, and concede that trio trumps the Nishioka foray into international talent.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • firstname.lastname@example.org