The Minnesota Twins' success in 2019 was a testament to the organization's ability to scout and develop international talent. From Dominican Republic natives Miguel Sanó and Jorge Polanco, to Venezuela native Luis Arraez and even Max Kepler (Germany) and Lewis Thorpe (Australia), many of the most important contributors to the club's first division title in nearly a decade were signed as young players outside of the MLB Draft and formed a key part of the club's homegrown core.
That's been a common thread throughout the organization's history. Even before the franchise's relocation to Minnesota, the Griffith family and scout Joe Cambria established an early pipeline in Cuba that struck gold on a few occasions for the late Senators and early Twins. These days, scouting work throughout Latin America, Europe and Australia has continued to prove vital to the organization's success.
MLB Pipeline recently released its annual Top 30 International Prospects list for players eligible to sign in the 2020-21 signing period. These young players are the game’s international stars of tomorrow and are following in the footsteps of thousands of international players who laid the groundwork before them. One day, these young men could be remembered among the best players in team history.
These are the Twins' Top 5 international prospects of all time.
1) Tony Oliva, 1962-76
Oliva has proven to be the most valuable product of that Cuban prospect pipeline for the Twins -- both on and off the field. Oliva signed a contract with Cambria and got off the island just before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 that strained relations between the United States and Cuba. In doing so, he set the stage for one of the most decorated careers in club history as not only a player, but also as a coach, mentor and member of the Minnesota community. He's the only member of the organization to have been involved in all three American League championships: as a player in '65, hitting coach in '87 and bench coach in '91.
It all started, of course, with his crazy rookie season in 1964, when Oliva became the team's starting right fielder and got a real chance to show off that line-drive swing that immediately propelled him to stardom with the American League batting title, 32 homers, an AL-best 43 doubles and Major League-leading 217 hits. That was good for the '64 AL Rookie of the Year Award and began an eight-year stretch during which he was named to eight All-Star teams, won three batting titles and led the AL in hits five times. He was a core piece of the '65 squad, which won the first AL pennant since the club's relocation to Minneapolis four years earlier.
Oliva's career would almost certainly have led to a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame had his production not been limited by chronic knee troubles that sapped his hitting ability. Had it not been for the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973, Oliva would likely have hung up the spikes well before the end of what became a 15-year MLB career -- all with the Twins. Knee issues and all, Oliva still finished his career with the fourth-most hits (1,917) in Twins history and the highest career batting average (.304) among Cuban-born players.
2) Camilo Pascual, 1954-60 (Senators) and '61-66 (Twins)
Pascual came before Oliva in that Cuba pipeline and took some time to settle in as a workhorse big league pitcher in his early years with the Senators. After several losing seasons, Pascual found his elite form as the 1950s turned to the '60s, and his most decorated years came following relocation as the franchise established itself at Metropolitan Stadium as a new fixture in the upper Midwest. Pascual was the most effective starter on that inaugural '61 Minnesota Twins team and beyond, leading the AL in strikeouts for three straight seasons and in shutouts for two of those years.
The right-hander from Havana maintained his effectiveness long enough to be a factor in the AL pennant race and postseason in 1965, when he posted a 3.35 ERA in 27 starts and took the loss in Game 3 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium opposite left-hander Claude Osteen. He finished his 18-year MLB career with the (new) Washington Senators, Reds, Dodgers and Indians before retiring in '71. Pascual ranks fifth in franchise history in games started (331) and third in strikeouts (1,885) behind only Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Bert Blyleven.
3) Zoilo Versalles, 1959-60 (Senators) and '61-67 (Twins)
Yep, one more Cuban star from those 1960s Twins teams -- and the only Most Valuable Player Award winner of the bunch. Also signed out of Havana by the then-Senators, Versalles debuted in his age-19 season in '59 and became the club's starting shortstop upon relocation to Minnesota two years later. Versalles was a solid offensive and defensive contributor for his first several seasons -- and then exploded in his '65 MVP season as one of many important forces in the Twins' run to the World Series.
Part of an explosive offense that also included Don Mincher, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Oliva and Harmon Killebrew, Versalles paired his Gold Glove defense at shortstop with an AL-leading 126 runs, 45 doubles, 12 triples and 308 total bases during the regular season, and added a team-leading eight hits in the Twins' World Series loss to the Dodgers. That production made him the first Latin-American player in Major League history to win an MVP Award. Versalles' numbers took a steep dive the following season before he was eventually traded to the Dodgers following the '67 campaign, and a back injury eventually cut his career short following his age-31 season in '71.
4) Grant Balfour, 2001, '03-04
There's an argument to be made for including catcher Wilson Ramos on this list, as he beats Balfour in career WAR, 15.4 to 9.2, and looks like he'll have a longer MLB career to boot. But Balfour makes the cut for not only several stellar seasons as a reliever for Tampa Bay and Oakland, but also as a nod to the Twins' tradition of Australian scouting that has produced two of the three Australians to have played in an MLB All-Star Game (Balfour and Liam Hendriks). The Twins hope that Thorpe, who made his big league debut in 2019 after years of top prospect status, will have a similarly solid career in the years to come.
Originally signed as a 19-year-old international free agent out of the Sydney area, Balfour debuted for the Twins in 2001 and didn't have much of a career in Minnesota, posting a 4.63 ERA over only 55 appearances. But his career blossomed once he reached Tampa Bay in '08, when he pitched to a 1.54 ERA with a career-high 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings and threw 8 2/3 innings in the postseason as the Devil Rays dropped the World Series to the Phillies. He remained a workhorse in '09 and '10 before he moved to Oakland and eventually became the closer, consistently recording ERAs in the low- to mid-2.00s and earning the only All-Star nod of his career in '13. He was among the first of many Australian-born Twins to follow, including more recent Major Leaguers Luke Hughes, Hendriks, James Beresford and Thorpe.
5) Miguel Sanó, 2015-present
Really, any of the three cornerstone Major Leaguers of that 2009 international signing class -- Sanó, Kepler or Polanco -- could have earned the final spot on this list. None of them has had a completely smooth Major League career to this point, but the Twins felt strongly enough about the trends in their performance to lock all three in with contract extensions that should keep them together as the core of the lineup for at least three more years. This list, a celebration of the Twins' international signing successes, simply wouldn't be complete without an acknowledgment of that class, and the historic nature of Sanó's signing by the Twins earns him the final spot in the rankings.
A 16-year-old Sanó was widely seen as the best prospect in the Dominican Republic during that signing period. Considering the relatively hefty price tag anticipated to be necessary for Sanó's services and the wide interest from around the league, it was a big moment for the Twins when they paid out a $3.15 million signing bonus -- at that time, the highest ever for a Latin-American position player from outside Cuba -- to bring Sanó into the organization. Sanó has struggled at times with his hitting and with his body and still has yet to play to his potential for a full season, but he came as close as he ever has in 2019, when he hit 34 homers in 105 games and directed significant effort to maintaining his fitness.