With the 2017 Minnesota Twins season set to open up on Monday, it’s finally time to try to predict what this team will do over the next 162 games.
Looking at the Opening Day roster and comparing it to what we saw a year ago, making a prediction that doesn’t have the Twins once again at least flirting with 100 losses takes a combination of considerable imagination and pure hope.
A 103-loss team a year ago, it’s pretty hard to see obvious reasons to project a significant improvement in that record. The primary change (in fact, perhaps the only significant change) in the organization came in the front office and, no matter what you think of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the new Twins brass won’t pitch or hit the team to more wins.
This is a roster that cried out for pitching upgrades and I defy anyone to look at the Opening Day pitching staff and point out where significant improvement is going to come from. The decision-makers have determined that manager Paul Molitor will have 13 pitchers to choose from. I don’t think volume is going to automatically make the staff better, though.
What this roster does have, thanks to the extra pitching being carried, is a total lack of offense available off the bench. When Molitor looks down his bench for a pinch hitter, he’s going to be looking at Chris Gimenez, Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana.
The only way he’ll see a viable pinch hitter in that dugout is if he has started Escobar at shortstop, leaving Jorge Polanco available.
Gimenez, the backup catcher, is also supposedly the backup first baseman behind Joe Mauer. That’s not ideal. I have to wonder if we won’t see Max Kepler at first base with some frequency. I don’t doubt he can handle the position (he did well enough there in Cedar Rapids back in 2013), but it’s a waste to put a guy with his range in the outfield at first base. It just makes you worse as a team, defensively, at both positions.
I don’t envy Molitor the task he has before him this season.
Owner Jim Pohlad made it clear at the end of 2016 that, regardless of who he hired to run his baseball operations, they were going to keep Molitor as their manager in 2017.
So Falvey and Levine knew they wouldn’t be able to hire the manager of their choice until the 2018 season.
But it’s almost as if they collectively decided that they weren’t going to go out of their way during the 2016-2017 offseason to improve the Twins’ roster and risk giving Molitor any chance to win enough games to make replacing him an unpopular thing to do, either with fans or with an owner who clearly likes the Hall-of-Famer, after his lame-duck season wraps up.
Molitor has certainly not set the world on fir in his first two seasons as a manager. In this interview with the Pioneer Press’ Brian Murphy, Molitor even admits that, “Learning to run the bullpen has been a work in progress.”
He’ll get no argument from most Twins fans on that point.
Molitor also conceded that his ability to produce more wins may be taken out of his hands as this season unfolds. After trying, and failing, to get what they considered fair market trade value out of veterans like Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana during the offseason, you have to assume that the Twins new front office would be quick to pull the trigger on mid-season trades of such players if they get off to good starts, driving up their trade values
With a front office so obviously focused on the future, such moves would have significant negative effects on the chances of Molitor leading his team to enough wins to save his job.
To his credit, it’s clear from the comments he made to Murphy that Molitor, while being aware of these circumstances, isn’t particularly concerned about them. Or at least he’s classy enough not to express any such concerns publicly.
Make no mistake, however, any ultimate failure of the 2017 Twins to substantially improve the results that fans see on the field would be a shared responsibility.
I won’t argue that Molitor would be blameless for a lack of success, but his front office did him no favors with its inactivity all offseason long. They had an obvious task – improve the pitching, both the rotation and the bullpen. They did almost nothing to address that need and that, in my view, would make them primarily responsible if a lack of pitching talent leads to another bad season.
I’m hoping that another year of development will mean significant improvements on the field from guys such as Kepler, Polanco, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
I’m hoping Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson have good years and that whatever mix is in that bullpen turns out able to do its job well.
I’m hoping that some of the organization’s young pitchers develop quickly enough to provide upgrades during the course of the season.
As a fan, hoping is all I have the ability to do.
Unfortunately, everything I’ve seen, heard and read about the new Twins front office indicates that they’re just hoping all those things happen, too.
Falvey and Levine, however, walked into their offices at Target Field with the absolute authority to reshape their roster and they did virtually nothing to give Molitor – and Twins fans – anything of substance to hang our hopes on for this season.