The Pirates have an inside track on signing one of Latin America's top amateur prospects, Dominican shortstop Miguel Angel Sano, but the cost of the signing bonus could top $4 million and become the highest in Major League Baseball history for that region.
"The Pirates are one of many teams interested, and they've got as good a shot as any team as long as the money is there," Sano's agent, Rob Plummer, said yesterday. "There's no question they're interested, just as there's no question this is a special talent."
The Pirates assess Sano the same way, privately raving about Sano's body -- already 6 feet 3, 189 pounds -- and remarkable right-handed power to go with an arm rated as superb.
They have had significant concerns about his age, though those might have been placated in the past week: Sano, whose 16th birthday was Monday according to Plummer, has maintained that, despite his mature physical stature, he is being truthful about his age. The Pirates, highly skeptical, conducted an investigation, one that included a bone-graft test Wednesday that assigns an age range based on DNA, and Sano's range was between 16 and 17. An investigation of birth documents is ongoing.
One American League team conducted an investigation earlier this month and confirmed Sano as being of age, according to Plummer. Two other teams, also in that league, are conducting their own.
But it is the Pirates who have been most aggressive, including arranging a private workout three weeks ago in the Dominican, one attended by most of the team's upper brass. The Pirates also have the most inside connections, having courted Sano and his family extensively. To boot, Sano, Plummer and Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, have a long-standing relationship, and Plummer goes back years with general manager Neal Huntington.
The Pirates do not comment on potential personnel moves.
The investment, if it were to occur, would be extraordinary for the Pirates, whose record bonus in the region was $400,000 for Venezuelan center fielder Exicardo Cayones last year. But the team has vowed a greater commitment to finding talent in the region, most visibly through the $5 million academy it opened last month in Guerra, Dominican Republic. That idea was formed and implemented by owner Bob Nutting.
The Pirates spent $9.8 million on the amateur draft last year, plus $2 million in Latin America, each a franchise record. Most of that draft money went to first-round pick Pedro Alvarez -- a $6 million bonus, plus $355,000 more guaranteed -- but there will be no Alvarez type available at No. 4 overall in the next draft June 9. Thus, the team has flexibility to move from one pool to the other if needed. Or it could simply add to the pool, with ownership's authorization.
Players outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are not subject to the draft. Rather, they can be signed as free agents as young as age 16. The international signing period begins July 2, but teams are free to reach verbal agreements with players before that date.
Baseball's record Latin American bonus of $4.25 million was set last year by the Oakland Athletics, for 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michael Inoa. The average bonus in the Dominican last year was $108,000.
Plummer, who has signed players to seven of the top 13 bonuses in Dominican history, declined to discuss numbers. But offers already are believed to have topped $3 million.
"Sano is the best player I've ever had, and other people feel that way, too," Plummer said. "I think the sky's the limit for him as player, so I would hope the bonus would reflect that."
Statistics are scarce in the Dominican amateur ranks, so Sano's prowess is evaluated almost entirely by scouting on sandlots. The consensus is that Sano will move to a corner outfield spot once he turns professional, probably right field to take advantage of the arm. The consensus of his offensive potential ranges from excellent to extraordinary.
"Based on what I've seen and heard from talent evaluators, his upside is that he's Albert Pujols in Hanley Ramirez's body," Plummer said of the stars of the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins, respectively. "He might not stay at short the way Ramirez has, but he's been compared to Pujols' bat because of a short, compact swing with lots of power."
That might sound like agent-speak, but the praise for Sano was equally effusive from others in the industry interviewed for this story, none of whom wished to go on the record in advance of the July 2 signing period.
A player's age -- often hard to determine in the Dominican, where paperwork can be scattershot and bribery or forgery routine -- is essential in a team's decision to offer a bonus. Even a year or two can make a large difference in assessing potential.
Sano told the Global Post, an international news agency, in an April 29 online video that he was 15 at the time.
"Let them investigate me," Sano said in the video. "There is just a doubt in their heads, and investigating me can get this doubt out of their heads."
Plummer, who declined the Post-Gazette's request to interview Sano, described him as a modest person with a humble background.
"He's outgoing, but not in a cocky way," Plummer said. "He acts just like a kid who happens to be good at baseball. And he loves the game. He'll run in the morning, practice in the afternoon and go running again at night. He's all about being best player he possibly can be."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published May 15, 2009 4:00 AM