Miguel Sano, the young Twins slugger, knows Alex Rodriguez a little. Not as well as Robinson Cano, who like Sano hails from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, but well enough to chat up Rodriguez whenever they cross paths on a baseball field.
“I’ve known him a long time,” Sano said in the Twins clubhouse over the weekend. “He has a lot of experience – All-Star, MVP. He’s a great guy, a great hitter, and a great person. He can help a lot of people, too.”
One of those people might be Sano himself. Twins batting coach Tom Brunansky publicly questioned Sano’s work ethic in a recent radio interview with 1500 ESPN, a debatable strategy that confirms the Twins coaching staff’s frustration with him. Time to try a different voice.
The Yankees released Rodriguez on Saturday, the morning after his emotional final game at Yankee Stadium. Not since Pete Rose drew a lifetime suspension from then-Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti has baseball seen a character as polarizing as Rodriguez, a two-time drug cheat with 696 career home runs and more baggage than a cruise ship.
But here’s the thing: Rodriguez’s former teammates, almost to a man, praise his baseball smarts and willingness to share his insights with young players. That’s why Rodriguez agreed to become a Yankee instructor for 2017, with the Yankees paying off the remaining $27.5 million of his 10-year, $275 million deal.
The Twins’ future rides on their young Latinos – Sano, Eddie Rosario, Danny Santana, Jorge Polanco, Kennys Vargas, etc. – who badly need a veteran Latino player to show them the way. Boldness isn’t the Twins way, but Interim General Manager Rob Antony needs a bold stroke here — signing Rodriguez for the rest of the season as a combination DH, corner infielder and unofficial coach.
Sano, for one, is all for it.
“He could help the young guys here,” Sano said. “If they brought somebody in who was like Torii (Hunter), I think we can be better. I love Torii. He’s a great leader. He helped me with a lot of things, inside and outside the field. It’s a good idea.”
Though coaches primarily instruct young players, the veterans on a club teach the nuances, everything from how a pitcher tips off his curveball to what to pack for a three-city road trip. Tony Oliva mentored Rod Carew. Kirby Puckett mentored Hunter. Hunter mentored Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer assumed that role when Hunter signed with the Angels. That’s how it works.
The Twins are top-heavy with kids and light on accomplished veterans, a big reason they’re still in last place, repeating the same maddening baserunning and fielding mistakes night after night. Sunday’s 11-4 loss to Kansas City, a four-error fiasco, illustrates the problem. Younger Latinos face language and cultural challenges that only other Latinos can help them navigate, and the Twins haven’t had a veteran Latino since trading Kendrys Morales to Seattle two years ago.
Mauer brings some gravitas as a former MVP, three-time batting champion and six-time All-Star. But Latinos need their own Mauer. And Rodriguez, a three-time MVP with 696 career homers, carries instant credibility, since most young Latinos couldn’t care less about his steroid history.
Last year, Yankees infield coach Joe Espada relied heavily on Rodriguez to guide Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter’s shortstop successor, through a rough patch, assisting with positioning, fielding mechanics and confidence-building. Fox Network analyst C.J. Nitkowski, the former pitcher and a Rodriguez teammate in Texas, recalled on a broadcast last Friday how Rodriguez reminded him to mix up his pitches and not fall into predictable patterns.
Young Latinos like Cano gravitated to the bilingual Rodriguez, an American of Dominican heritage. I saw some of this myself as a contributing writer for The New York Times. Yankees Manager Joe Girardi credited Rodriguez with Cano’s development as a hitter.
“The things he talked about on a baseball level were probably the best and most intriguing out of all the guys I ever played with,” Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson, a former Yankee, told reporters in Detroit the day the Yankees announced Rodriguez’s new role.
“It wasn’t always about him,” Granderson continued. “Just about the team or individual pitchers, other guys on the team, guys we were about to play. It was just amazing the things he would talk about. Nothing too over the top, but he had a different way of looking at stuff.”
Rodriguez thinks he can still play. The Yankees released Rodriguez because they thought he was done, and there may be a limited market for a 41-year-old DH with a .200 average and 6 hits in 47 at-bats since July 1 (.128). That’s less of an issue on Sept. 1, when rosters expand from 25 to 40.
Tampa Bay and Miami are reportedly interested because Rodriguez lives in South Florida. Whether Rodriguez would consider a Twins team remains to be seen.
Manager Paul Molitor knows Rodriguez and respects his baseball savvy, but he hedged when asked if the Twins need another experienced player. “I know we have veterans who try to help, and we have a lot of young guys. There’s an imbalance,” he said. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
Regarding Rodriguez, Molitor said, “If you’re asking me if there’s a fit here, I don’t see where he’d get much of an opportunity. We’ve got a lot of DHs.”
That’s the wrong way to look at it.
A last-place team with no shot at the playoffs and a clubhouse of young Latinos desperate for direction had better figure out a way to get them some. The obvious mentors – Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Morales and the soon-to-be-retiring David Ortiz – aren’t available. Rodriguez is, and he comes cheaply; the Twins pay only a prorated version of the league minimum salary. The Yankees pick up the rest.
Here’s how Antony can frame it to Rodriguez: We need your bat, and our kids need your guidance. We know you’ll be professional. Take ground balls at third and first base every day, and we’ll rotate you among first, third and DH, three or four starts a week. Other days, you’re our top bat off the bench. (Who would you rather see pinch-hitting with two on in the eighth, a kid or a three-time M.V.P.?)
The Twins need to think less about the at-bats Rodriguez might take from the kids, and more about how he can impact them all just by being around. It’s bold. And maybe it’s nuts. But the club’s future and a bunch of front office jobs depend on these Latino kids panning out, and bringing Rodriguez here gives them the best chance to succeed. It’s a phone call worth making.