By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
More than any other factor, the organizational culture of the Minnesota Twins is shaped by its reliance on scouting. Where most other major league baseball franchises budget for at least one high-priced free agent every year or two, the Twins overwhelmingly prefer to eschew free agents and instead draft and then develop their own players. When that approach isn't sufficient, the organization has proven to be very resourceful at trading for players who are undervalued by other clubs, but who have received high marks from the Twins' encyclopedic scouting reports that are internally circulated and updated every year. USA Today's Minor League Player of the Year for 2005 was the Twins' Francisco Liriano, who was an unheralded pitcher used by the San Francisco Giants to complete a trade involving higher-profile players three years ago. USA Today's Minor League Player of the Year for 2006 is Matt Garza, the Twins' top draft choice in 2005. This shrewd appraisal of talent is the primary reason why the Twins have become consistent playoff contenders despite retaining one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues.
The Twins' current general manager, Terry Ryan, was first hired by the team as its director of scouting, and is the person most responsible for the franchise's steadfast commitment to quality scouting. The current scouting director, Mike Radcliff, is completing his 13th year in that job, the longest tenure in the major leagues. Now 49, Radcliff oversees the work of 53 scouts (28 of them full-time) arrayed throughout the country and at select baseball hot spots around the globe. Most of the time he too is out bird-dogging baseball talent, only coming to Minneapolis for a week to coordinate the annual amateur draft, and then for a few days in late summer when the minor leagues have finished their seasons. That's how we were able to snag him last week—at the ballpark, naturally, watching from the stands along the third-base line as the Twins took batting practice three hours before game time.
City Pages:Is there a secret, or a succinct explanation, for why the Twins have been so successful with their scouting operation?
Mike Radcliff: I'm not sure you can summarize it quickly. First of all, Terry Ryan is a major reason we do the things we do. He is a former scout, he is very regimented and detail-oriented; his communication is great and everyone is included. Terry doesn't get off-track very often when he is going through whatever exercise it is. And most of the things involved in scouting development are an exercise. They require teamwork among a lot of people, and time, patience, research, and study. Most of the decisions in player development and scouting aren't spontaneous; they occur over the course of time.
CP:How many sets of eyes you will put on somebody you are looking to draft or acquire? A half-dozen, or maybe just one or two really top-notch people?
Radcliff: There are different ways to do it. Some teams will subscribe to the "expert" approach where one guy makes the bulk of the decisions. We are definitely a team where if we get nine looks on a player, we want the tenth one if possible. All of our player-development people, including our minor league coaches and managers, are required to evaluate players, which is different from most organizations.
CP:You mean like a third-base coach in AA is required to write reports on every player he sees?
Radcliff: Yes. And we'll call anybody, from the trainer to the GM to the other front office personnel in the minor leagues, to get information through any source that's out there.
CP:Let's take a high-profile example. In what is generally regarded as one of the most lopsided trades of all time, you dealt catcher A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco for three pitchers: Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano. Did you have reports on those three?
Radcliff: We have a book on every organization, and in it there are reports we have made on every player in that organization. So before we make a trade we look at the book and talk it out. Wayne [Krivsky, the Twins' former assistant general manager, who is now GM of the Cincinnati Reds] saw and recommended Joe Nathan for that deal. I saw Bonser; other scouts had seen Liriano.
We had thought about drafting Bonser, so we had reports on him going back to high school and every year since. Same thing with Liriano, we knew him pretty well. He was actually a big-money signing out of the Dominican League. He was an outfielder originally, and they converted him to pitcher when he was 17 years old. Then he had arm problems his first few years in the minor leagues. He only had very limited innings the year we took him, pitching out of the South Atlantic league, but we saw him before he was hurt. Then he was in the Instructional League and we found a report from our guy who saw him there.
So we had those two reports defining him as having physical talent. He was way down there in the minors, so there was a lot of projection and a lot of risk, but our guys had defined his attributes and made it clear that this guy was worth the risk. We were going to trade Pierzynski anyway; he was a good player but we were fortunate because Joe Mauer was ready. We had three or four teams pursuing A.J., and Terry was persistent about trying to get a third body. The Cubs and some others made some offers.
The thing is, we don't throw anything away. There are certain rules of application you don't change. "Old dope" is the term we use for that and it can be very valuable. Terry will ask me any number of times through the course of the year, "Do you remember this guy out of that draft?" And it may have been a draft five, six, seven years ago.
CP:And is that kind of process standard operating procedure in major league baseball?
Radcliff: No, I don't think it is. I don't think every team, when they are going through the draft and putting their final list together, has the statistics from a player's previous summer in the Cape Cod League, Alaska League, Jayhawk League, all the summer leagues. We have them right there on the table to refer to, because we believe in as much information as possible. And that there is no information that is not applicable. We keep that information.
CP:Are there any other things that could be said to be the "Twins way" of finding and developing talent? Aside from the sheer volume of reports you produce, are you guys known for anything around the league?
Radcliff: I know where you are going with this—some teams won't draft anybody under six foot, or athleticism is the big thing, or good times in the sprints. So you are right, there are different things about different organizations. I think we probably focus more on pitch-ability and play-ability in how we set up our order of how we want to draft and so forth. By that I mean we want to go beyond just tools, because that is the basic [standard] that everybody uses, right? We all have specific requirements or desires on size and speed and velocity. But beyond that, we want to include command and control and presence for a pitcher, and include the ability to play a position and have instincts as a player. There are some other teams with us on this, but we probably emphasize makeup as much or more than anyone else.
CP:You mean character?
Radcliff: That is part of it. Different traits apply to different skills and different positions and we try to profile that accordingly. But Terry is big on having quality character guys in the system. In the end, that's one of the things that kills a player who comes along, and you're drafting them so young anyway, and especially internationally: They can end up falling by the wayside, not because they can't run and throw and pitch or whatever.
CP:But because they are homesick or pissed-off?
Radcliff: Exactly. And we do focus on that through the psychological test and through the home visits. We do a lot of analysis on character to try and separate out people.
CP:Do you have the resources you need to do the job? When the team gets a new ballpark, do you think your part of the money equation will beef up?
Radcliff: I don't know. You just make do. You have to make decisions along the way. There are comments all the time about how our owner is tight. The fact of the matter is that we are in the bottom third or whatever in [revenue] resources.
CP:One of the changes in your job over the years has probably been the increased importance of international scouting. Was it just a confluence of events or was it purposeful for the Twins to decide on Venezuela as a place you would concentrate your efforts?
Radcliff: It was definitely purposeful. We had an aggressive scout who was willing to take some risks and chances, so that was where we built our first academy. Now, just in the last two years, we have shifted our emphasis to the Dominican Republic and built a new academy there. We need to be productive there. It's the most productive baseball country in the world, and we've had minimal impact there.
CP:Particularly infielders, it seems.
Radcliff: Yeah, it's like they grow on trees down there or something. We need to get some [laughs]. And we haven't. But you say confluence; sometimes that's the case. I mean, the reason we have more Australians than any other organization is because we had a scout who lives there and we just happened to find that niche that nobody else was using. So we've done okay there. And that's what we'll do internationally, find some niches that nobody else is using.
CP:It seems that you did that in Venezuela, got in ahead of the curve.
Radcliff: Us and Houston, we were the early leaders. Now most everybody is there. Actually, in the last year it has become a little bit more of a scary situation because of the politics.
CP:Does a Santana help you recruit in a country like Venezuela where he is a native national hero and associated with the Twins, like Ichiro with Seattle and Japanese players?
Radcliff: We've talked about that, and we've been trying to figure out exactly how we might be able to use that to our advantage. They all have an agent or somebody speaking for them.
CP: Aside from the character issue you just talked about, what seems to be the best predictor for success? Is there a trait or something you can identify, even if we're talking about 5 percent or 8 percent success? When you see certain boxes checked on the report or certain words used by your guys, what are the ones that get you most excited?
Radcliff: That's an interesting question. I guess I'd have to say there is a different emphasis on different levels of players. It sounds simple, but in the end, for a major league team to be successful first of all you've got to have talent. There is no way around that. Take the Twins. We've got five of the best players in the entire game on our team right now: Mauer and Morneau, Santana and Liriano, plus Nathan. Those are top-notch. And to be a World Series-type good team, you've got to have that kind of talent.
You have to be willing to take risks. You have got to learn from history, no question. But it's baseball. If you fail 70 percent of the time, you're still a good player. In scouting, let's take the draft for instance, which is one avenue of player procurement: It is not about being right on everything. You just need to be right more often than the guys working for the 29 other teams.
CP:How much of your responsibility is oversight, and how much is actual scouting?
Radcliff: Some general managers want a posse around them all the time—telling them how good they are, I guess. Terry isn't like that. I'm in this building twice a year. I'm in here for the draft for a week and I come in here during this time of year to watch our big league team in action for a few days. If I show up, it's, "What are you doing here?"
Terry came over here when this organization was at the bottom, when he was the scouting director who worked for Andy [MacPhail]. He had to let a lot of older gentlemen go and add young personnel. I'm just a maintenance guy, to be honest with you, which is certainly not an easy job, but it is not like what Terry had to go through, starting anew. I haven't had to let too many people go or hire too many guys. We've worked together for a long time and can anticipate each other's moves and thoughts and beliefs. I'm really lucky to have this job.