Berrios' emergence a boon for Twins, PR
Young right-hander set to start tonight vs. Indians in his home country
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Shohei Ohtani and Jose Berrios have a few things in common. They are 23 years old. They have overpowering pitch repertoires. And they can hit.
Admittedly, Berrios' Major League sample size is microscopic: He is 2-for-6 in the Majors. But the right-hander who dominated the White Sox on Thursday -- 11 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings in the Twins' 4-0 win -- spent most of his baseball life as a position player.
Berrios grew up playing shortstop on the fields of his native Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He idolized Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez. It wasn't until his junior year at Papa Juan High School that he acquiesced to the advice of scouts who'd watched him moonlight as a closer.
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Last week, nearly six years after signing his first pro contract -- exclusively as a pitcher -- Berrios was asked if he could duplicate Ohtani's two-way heroics.
"If I had the opportunity," Berrios said through interpreter Elvis Martinez, "why not?"
With that answer, Berrios conveyed the confidence and playfulness that has endeared him to fans in Minnesota. Berrios began last year pitching for the silver medal-winning Puerto Ricans in the World Baseball Classic. He ended it taking the loss in relief in the American League Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium. The next honor may be his greatest yet.
Less than 10 miles from Papa Juan, Berrios will take the mound at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in the first Major League series on Puerto Rican soil in eight years. Berrios expects 150 friends and family members to attend tonight's game against the Indians.
MLB announced plans for the series last June, and Hurricane Maria devastated the island three months later. Once it became clear the stadium would be repaired in advance of the games, the series assumed heightened significance as a symbol of Puerto Rico's effort to rebuild.
"My family has been waiting a long time for this, just like I have," Berrios said. "This is a special moment for all of us, for the country to come together as one."
Berrios' wife, Jannieliz, was in Minnesota with the couple's three children when the storm hit. The family remained on the U.S. mainland for six weeks after the Twins' season ended before receiving word that they were safe to return to Bayamon. Once Berrios arrived home, he collaborated with Twins teammates Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas on efforts to assist those most affected by Hurricane Maria.
"The reality is that I knew my immediate family was OK, because of the area [where we live in Puerto Rico]," Berrios said. "But I also knew people outside of that area who were badly affected, because the infrastructure where they lived wasn't good. I felt good about my family being OK, but it was really hard knowing how much my community was suffering."
In that way, this week's series will demonstrate both the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people and the island's baseball renaissance, of which Berrios is an integral part.
A decade ago, baseball observers debated whether Puerto Rico would again produce perennial All-Stars to rival the outgoing generation of Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams and others. Puerto Rico's inclusion in the Draft in 1989 was cited as one contributing factor to an apparent shortage of new talent in the first decade of the current century. (The theory went that the Draft would limit potential signing bonuses and offer less incentive for buscones to train players.)
The narrative changed in the span of two Draft classes. Infielders Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez -- Puerto Ricans who attended high school in Florida -- were selected eighth and ninth overall, respectively, in the 2011 Draft. One year later, the Astros made Carlos Correa the first ever Puerto Rican-born No. 1 overall pick. The Twins selected Berrios at No. 32. Edwin Diaz, now the Mariners' closer, went in the third round.
Berrios' agent, Melvin Roman, said the influx of talent encouraged teams to expand their scouting presence in Puerto Rico. Major League rosters are beginning to reflect that trend. This season, 19 Puerto Rican-born players appeared on Major League Opening Day rosters -- the most from the island since 2011.
"I really don't think the Draft hurt baseball in Puerto Rico," said Roman, who represents Puerto Rican icon Yadier Molina. "In fact, I think in some cases it was a benefit. If you're an [international] free agent, you sign at 16 years old. A lot of players aren't ready for that, and [under that system] if you don't sign at 16 or 17, then you're too old."
Roman believes the Draft helps a percentage of young players who need the additional developmental time before turning pro. For Berrios, the Draft afforded him the time to make a career-altering decision.
Hector Otero, who scouted Puerto Rico for the Twins at that time, first saw Berrios as a high school junior, at a tryout for Puerto Rican prospects organized by longtime scout Frankie Thon Sr. in January 2011.
"He came to the workout as a shortstop," said Otero, now a high-ranking international scouting executive with the Reds. "We heard he could pitch, too. The next time we had a workout, he got on the mound. I saw him pitch and said, 'This guy has got talent.'"
By then, a consensus was developing -- from MLB scouts and Roman, as the family's adviser -- that Berrios' professional future would be on the mound.
"I was used to playing the infield my entire childhood," Berrios said. "That was the difficult part of it."
Berrios undoubtedly benefited from the renewed scouting focus on Puerto Rico, with Correa in consideration for the No. 1 overall pick. Correa's team at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in Gurabo faced Berrios and Papa Juan twice. Correa doubled off Berrios in the first meeting. As for the rematch? Berrios threw six perfect innings.
Berrios attended only one major workout on the U.S. mainland during his draft year, organized by Perfect Game USA. He performed poorly, saying now that the cold weather was a major factor. The stumble in front of so many scouts helped the Twins, as Berrios, who was ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 40 prospect in that Draft class, remained available in the supplemental portion of the first round, after Minnesota selected Byron Buxton with their first pick (second overall) in 2012.
"He's a guy we loved," said Mike Radcliff, the Twins' vice president of player personnel. "We liked the fact that he was a converted infielder. He'd only been pitching for a little while. We saw big upside, with a live arm and a lot of athleticism.
"Under [former Twins general manager] Terry [Ryan], our direction was always pure scouting: Take the best player, every round, every year, in our minds, wherever we're at. We were never afraid to take two or three high school guys in a row. That's off limits for some clubs, but we didn't have that shackle on us."
The Astros have received praise -- justifiably so -- for agreeing to the below-slot deal with Correa that allowed them to select (and afford) Lance McCullers with the 41st overall pick. The Twins liked McCullers but weren't comfortable selecting him over Berrios at No. 32 because of his high price tag. (The Astros saved more money on Correa than the Twins did with Buxton, so Houston had greater financial flexibility to sway McCullers from his commitment to the University of Florida.)
For Radcliff and then-scouting director Deron Johnson, the selections of Buxton and Berrios in the same draft represented a return to the Twins' traditional scouting philosophy, based on athleticism and projection. In that regard, Otero provided a key piece of information: While Berrios was only 5-foot-11 at the time, his father, Angel -- a former left-handed pitcher -- was 6-foot-2.
Otero made clear to the Twins' top decision makers that he believed Berrios would grow taller and stronger. He was right. Berrios' offseason routine -- legendary in its rigor -- has shaped a once-wiry body into that of an ascendant ace.
"The kid was all about baseball," Otero said.
Now, Berrios is on the verge of joining the legends of his homeland's baseball history. A native Puerto Rican has not started an MLB game at Hiram Bithorn since Javier Vazquez, then of the Expos, on Sept. 7, 2003. The Twins have made certain that Berrios will change that. From the start of Spring Training, they arranged their rotation such that Berrios' turn would fall on one of the two dates.
"It's a very special ballpark for all Puerto Ricans," Berrios said. "It's one of the most glorious ballparks in America. I grew up watching winter ball games there. I played in the WBC there. It's a very special place for me."
On the precipice of a start that carries such deep meaning, Berrios was asked what he most wants to achieve in his Major League career. He answered by speaking about longevity.
"I want to leave a legacy," Berrios said. "I want to pitch 15 or 20 years in the Major Leagues. If I do that, I'll be able to accomplish many things."
Berrios acknowledged that he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest Puerto Rican pitchers ever. That's ambitious for the former shortstop, but it's well within his capability. Vazquez won 165 career games, the most ever for a Puerto Rican-born pitcher. Berrios, with 19 victories as a Major Leaguer, has a busy decade ahead if he's to seriously challenge Vazquez's mark. And tonight, at the very least, Puerto Rico's brightest baseball spotlight belongs to Berrios.