Saluting AL MOY Paul Molitor With a Look Back

Congratulations to Twins Manager Paul Molitor for being honored as the American League Manager of the Year for 2017!

In his honor, I thought this might be a fun time to take a an encore look at this post from June of 2013 when Molitor, who was then a roving minor league instructor for the Twins organization, visited Cedar Rapids and was generous enough to sit with me for an interview.

As a reminder, 2013 was the season when current Twins Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco were wearing Kernels uniforms.

Hope you enjoy this look back. – JC

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was in Cedar Rapids over the course of most of the past homestand in his capacity with the Twins organization.

Molitor was gracious enough to answer some questions last Thursday, the first day of his stay in Cedar Rapids, as well as a few follow-up questions Monday afternoon after the final game of the Kernels’ homestand.

I used several excerpts from the Thursday interview in an article posted at MetroSportsReport.com last week, but there was so much good material that I couldn’t fit in to that article. So, I’m sharing all of Molitor’s comments here.

First off, I asked Molitor to describe his formal role these days with the Twins organization.

Molitor: Titles are overrated a little bit. Technically, part of the player development team. I’m the Minor League Coordinator for Baserunning and Infield Play. It’s an opportunity for me to travel around the system and help try to teach, along with the staff on each club and I do focus on those two areas but invariably get involved with some of the hitting aspects.

Our hitting coordinator for minor leagues does an incredible job, considering you have to try to put a hit plan together for about 200 guys.

One of the things I enjoy, in addition to the teaching is that a lot of these guys are transitioning from wherever their roots have brought them from and it’s a process of evolving from sometimes teenagers in to men and so there’s mentoring involved, too. Just how to help these guys develop an understanding of the professional life style. We try to do what we can to try to help them progress in those areas, too.

Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice
Paul Molitor (4) observing Kernels C Jhonatan Arias (23) take batting practice

I mentioned that a lot is made about players having to transition to using wood bats and asked Molitor if he thought that was toughest thing about transitioning to the professional game for young players.

Molitor: Some of the collegiate kids have had a chance to play in wood bat leagues in the summer time.

A lot of times it’s a big transition just from maybe never having left home, particularly maybe never left your country and you have to try to claw your way in to professional ball and learn a system that a particular organization teaches.

We don’t try to overwhelm them. We let them play a little bit in the beginning til we kind of get a feel for who they are and what they do, what they do well and what we need to improve on. But the transition can be tough, depending on the guy’s experience.

The college guys are usually better at understanding how to carry themselves and how to go about their business day to day.

Another change is that very few of these kids have played in seasons where there’s 140 games so it’s understanding how to maintain and prepare yourself to withstand the rigors of a professional season.

I asked if playing baseball in the upper midwest in April was difficult for players entering their first season of “full season” professional baseball.

Molitor: The guys from warm climates, whether its Florida, California, Texas or the Dominican or Puerto Rico, you throw them up here in April and it’s not only a culture shock, but the weather is something they really never had to play in those type of conditions.

So that’s a process. We see a lot of guys that haven’t had that experience start a little bit slower, just adapting to the weather itself.

I jokingly pointed out that Byron Buxton is a southern guy that didn’t seem to take long to adjust.

Molitor: He’s just a rare individual with a skill set that’s off the charts.

I saw him last year in instructional ball for a little bit and you could see the rawness of a high school kid, but somehow this winter I think he put a lot of time in to conditioning and preparation. He was much more advanced this spring than I expected him to be and he’s been able to carry it undoubtedly in to the first 9-10 weeks of the season.

You know, he’s got things to work on I’m sure. I’m looking forward to seeing him now compared to even two months ago. Over the next five days. I’ll be watching particularly how he handles himself on the basepaths.

On a professional grading scale of 2-8, he’s an 8 runner and I haven’t for the past three decades seen many players that can compete with him in terms of just raw speed. Now how he can translate that in to base stealing is going to be the key.

Obviously, this year he’s had over 30 attempts. He’s been caught some, but he’s been fairly successful for a young guy and probably in some ways, in this league, he’s been outrunning the ball.

There’s two parts of base stealing: The mechanical, finding the best way to get your body to accelerate from a standstill position; and then there’s the mental side of understanding how they’re trying to slow you down and picking good pitches, good counts, reading pitchers pick-off moves, all those type of things.

A lot of times, when you get caught is when you should learn the most. Whether you didn’t get a good jump or you ran on a pitch out or you didn’t anticipate the guy going home or you were tentative. There’s a lot of ways to learn to get better. So it’s a process. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

We’re glad to see he’s out running. At least not having fear in athat area to this point.

Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison
Paul Molitor hitting ground balls to Kernels 3B Travis Harrison

I asked Molitor for his thoughts on Kernels third baseman Travis Harrison, who is still somewhat learning the position.

Molitor: Ive been around him some, mostly spring traning and instructional ball. I’m sure there’s some adaption for him going on.

He has relatively good hands. I think his footwork is something that needs to be improved. Being so close in proximity to home plate, you don’t have a lot of time to react to get your body in position to catch the ball. The better he can get control of his feet and be in the right spot, his hands are going to be OK.

Throwing, he’s had some issues at times with consistency. He’s a little bit mechanical, but I think he’s learning that if he doesn’t try to guide the ball and throws it, he’s better off.

So those are areas where we expect young kids to make errors and just like the baserunning, when you make mistakes, you figure out why and hopefully you can make adjustments.

I asked for Molitor’s thoughts concerning the defensive progress at third base of Harrison, as compared to Miguel Sano (this was a couple of days prior to Sano’s promotion to AA).

Molitor: I think that’s a fair question.

We’re all hoping that Sano, who’s a little farther along in the organization and in growth, in terms of getting close to the Major Leagues. Not unexpectedly, he made a ton of errors last year, his first year of being a third baseman in a full season and it was a plethora of mistakes.

It was misreading balls, it was rushing balls, it was throwing balls he shouldn’t have thrown. Trying to force an out when it wasn’t there.

But having seen him twice already this year, he’s made maybe a dozen errors so far and a lot of them are similar things.

But he’s been very diligent and asking for extra work and trying to correct mistakes.

I’m hoping his future is as a third baseman.

Travis, it’s a little bit early to see how it pans out. A lot of times, you can play three or four years in the minor leagues and then you get to the Big Leagues and there’s no room in that position and all of a sudden you’ve got to maybe transition. So you kind of hope that you get these guys a little bit more well-rounded. As far as their strength position, you want to try to see them develop that the most.

After the game on Monday, a Kernels win that was broadcast back to the Twin Cities on Fox Sports North, I asked Molitor about his impressions after having spent five days with the Kernels in Cedar Rapids.

Molitor: Well it was good to see them bounce back after three tough losses.

I feel like we got some things accomplished with some of the infielders defensively.

It was good to see (Candido) Pimentel back out there today. He had a better day. He still had one play where he got a little anxious about turning his back to the runner and he didn’t keep his eye on the ball and that’s kind of one of the things he’s got to work on is just catching the ball and understanding the speed of the baserunners on the play.

And then with baserunning, we had some guys out working on their jumps today and they’ve been aggressive trying to steal, so I’m pleased with that.

But yeah, I had a lot of fun seeing these guys and kind of seeing where they’re at at this point in the season and hopefully I’ll get a chance to get back and see them again.

Since Molitor had indicated he would be working with Byron Buxton on his base stealing, I asked if we should blame him for Buxton being picked off first base during Monday’s game (yes, I was kidding).

Molitor: You can blame me for that if you want. The (pitcher) did a nice job of holding the ball. I think he kind of built a little tension. The longer the guy holds it, you really have to concentrate on staying relaxed and he might have given him a little bit of a balk move, but that’s, again, learning time.

A hitter can help your baserunner out when he’s holding the ball. Call a time out, things like that. But that’s how you learn.

I asked for Molitor’s impression of Jorge Polanco, specifically whether he thinks Polanco can stick at shortstop.

Molitor: You know, I’ve seen him a fair amount and his arm’s probably competent at short but I still think he probably profiles a little better at second base in the long run.

Working on his footwork a little bit. He can get a little false step on his breaks to the ball and it seems like balls you think he might have a chance to get he comes up a little bit short. So we’ll try to improve his range a little bit and give him a chance.

At 19, it’s certainly too early to close the book on any one position.

Offensively, he’s just getting a little bit stronger and he’s got nice loose hands at the plate and being a switch hitter is generally to his advantage.

But I keep trying to keep them versatile in the middle of the field and hopefully one of the positions will pan out. But I have a feeling probably second base in the long run.

Since we had discussed third baseman Travis Harrison earlier, I asked if he had any final impressions of Harrison.

Molitor: He’s got a great attitude about work ethic and he wants to get better.

I think the main thing for him is going to continue to work on his footwork so his range is competent to stay over there, too. But his throwing’s improved. He’s a lot more accurate. I think he’s comfortable over there.

He’s still feeling for positioning a little bit. Sometimes I catch him maybe not quite in the right spot. There’s a reason you are where you are on every pitch and I think he’s learning that and trying to take some pride in it.

It was a pleasure to talk a little baseball with Paul Molitor and I appreciate him taking the time to answer questions. I think the thought he put in to his comments clearly demonstrates just how seriously he takes his work with the Twins’ young players and how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing. – JC

Twins Need A Memorable Offseason

Been a while.

I’m not sure why I couldn’t bring myself to write over the past couple of months. Certainly, it wasn’t for a lack of Twins-related stuff to hash over, right? Since my last post, the Twins and Kernels BOTH qualified for their respective leagues’ postseasons. Not bad, right?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training and went on to lead the Twins to a postseason appearance.

Neither of them lasted as long as we would have liked, with the Kernels winning their first round series over Kane County, but dropping two games out of three to Quad Cities in the Midwest League’s Western Division championship series and the Twins falling to the Evil Empire in the American League Wild Card game, but still, they capped off successful seasons.

Now we’re into baseball’s offseason. You remember the offseason? I know, if you’re a Twins fan, it’s understandable if you have no idea what that is. After all, the Twins haven’t historically done much but go into hibernation from November until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in February.

Already, this offseason, though, the Twins front office has: let go of Fort Myers Miracle manager (and fan-favorite former Twins first baseman) Doug Mientkiewicz, announced a three year extension for manager Paul Molitor, released their major league pitching coach and minor league pitching coordinator and hired John Manuel, the editor of Baseball America, into their pro scouting organization.

Of interest to Kernels fans (at least it should be), the Twins also promoted farm director Brad Steil to the director of professional scouting and hired a new director of minor league operations, Jeremy Zoll, out of the Dodgers organization.

That may not sound like a lot to some people, but for the Twins, that’s a lot of decisions coming down the pipeline before the World Series even gets started!

It seemed to me, though, that it was the Mientkiewicz news that got the biggest reaction out of Twinsville. He had been, after all, reported to have been a candidate for the Twins’ managerial job before Molitor was eventually given the gig. And it’s pretty hard, I think, to find a player that spent any time on one of his teams in Fort Myers or Chattanooga who didn’t speak highly of him.

But, from everything I’ve heard from former players and media, Dougie Baseball was a bit of a dinosaur, when it comes to his approach to managing a baseball team. He also had a history of, arguably, stretching pitch counts for some of his young pitchers.

If any of that is true, then his chances of ever landing a coaching spot (much less the manager’s seat) at the MLB level in a Twins organization run by Thad Levine and Derek Falvey were virtually nil. He’s better off looking for a better philosophical fit. His problem is going to be trying to find a front office that still values his way of thinking above more modern analytical approaches.

Modern analytics are no longer just theory. In fact, they are no longer just being applied to the Major League levels. Minor league managers and coaches, all the way down through the lower levels, are being provided the tools necessary to record and mine advanced data on their own players, as well as their opponents’. And this Twins front office is not going to accept any coach or manager who doesn’t embrace and utilize those tools.

From where I sat in Cedar Rapids this summer, manager Tommy Watkins and his coaches (Brian Dinkelman and JP Martinez) did embrace this new world. They and their players spent more time with video, they applied the data at their fingertips related to everything from lineup construction to defensive shifts and were very careful not to overwork the young arms they were responsible for developing.

And they did all that while also winning baseball games!

I have no first-hand knowledge of whether other managing/coaching staff members in the organization were as on board as the Kernels’ staff with those obvious changes from past practices, but if any of them dragged their feet, they really can’t be too surprised if the front office decides to find replacements who would be more enthusiastic about implementing their bosses’ philosophies.

Apparently, Molitor demonstrated well enough that he was capable of implementing the front office’s system to warrant being kept around.

Then again, we all know that Molitor is a favorite not only with a significant segment of the fan base but, more importantly, with owner Jim Pohlad.

Pohlad made retaining his manager for at least a year a prerequisite for anyone applying to replace former General Manager Terry Ryan, so his feelings about Molitor are obvious.

Reports indicated that Pohlad did not order his front office to offer an extension to the manager after this past season, but that, if they decided they wanted to go another way, he wanted to be involved in a conversation before any announcement was made. That conversation was never necessary, of course, but one can imagine how it might have gone if the brass had decided they wanted to move in another direction.

Pohlad: Let me get this straight. Molitor led our team to the most dramatic turnaround, record-wise, in our history. He did this after you guys gave up on the season and got rid of his closer and the starting pitcher you traded FOR just a week earlier. Now, you want to fire him? Why?

“Falvine”: We just want our own guy in that position.

Pohlad, after a long pause to consider whether he would rather keep Molitor or these two new guys he still hasn’t learned to tell apart: OK. You lived up to your end of the deal. You kept Paul for one year. But gentlemen, you’d better be right or a year from now, your choice for a manager will be back on the street… and he’ll have company.

No, they weren’t going to let Molitor go. The only question in my mind was whether, after a year of spreadsheets and exit velocities, he felt comfortable continuing to manage in the new baseball world.

It’s not like he needed the gig, right? But I suspect that the promise of what this team could become over the next three years was enough to make him want to be around for that ride and I think he has some genuine affinity for and with this group of players which refused to roll over even after their front office gave up on them.

Now Falvine can focus on getting some pitching.

If there’s one thing that watching the teams that are still alive in the postseason drives home to you, it’s the difference between the quality of the pitching staffs, in particular the starting rotations, between these teams and the Twins.

I will say that the Twins’ rotation has improved. Whenever Santana, Berrios and even Gibson took the mound to start a game in August and September, I felt like the Twins had a chance to win.

But teams like the Astros, Indians, Dodgers, Cubs and even the Yankees don’t just feel they have a chance to win when their top three (and sometimes more) starters are on the mound, they EXPECT to win those games.

That is a huge difference and the task of the Twins’ front office is to make that kind of thing happen in Minnesota and do it fast.

Jorge Polanco has the shortstop job now. But Nick Gordon is on his way. Could one of them bring a top starting pitcher in a trade?

The window for winning with this current group of position players is now opening and those windows only last so long.

The Twins can’t afford to wait two or three or four years to develop a postseason-worth rotation. It has to happen sooner than that and it has to start in the next two months.

It has been a while since I felt inclined to support potentially trading top prospects for immediate help at the big league level, but I’m there now.

If it takes a couple of the organization’s top position player prospects to get legitimate starting pitching help (and not just #3 or #4 level arms), then get it done. Face it, there’s not a lot of room in this lineup right now for the guys coming up anyway and those guys might be better served to go somewhere that they aren’t blocked by guys like Buxton, Sano, Kepler and maybe even Polanco.

And the Twins can’t wait around to get pitching. Yes, let’s find out how good the top starting pitching prospects can be, but don’t let that stop you from getting pitchers that you can honestly EXPECT to win behind, not just have a chance to do so.

This should be the most interesting Twins offseason in the past couple of decades. If it’s not, then Levine and Falvey aren’t doing their jobs.

The First (and Last?) Knuckleballs Podcast

For some time now, my son Ryan and I have been tossing around the idea of doing a podcast.

The two of us (and occasionally along with other family members and friends of the family) get together rather regularly at our favorite watering hole, Bushwood Sports Bar & Grill in Cedar Rapids.

As difficult as it may be to believe, when Ryan and I get together for a beer (or to golf or to go to a ballgame), our conversations become heavily (though not exclusively) sports related.

Anyway, Thursday over happy hour, Ryan and I had a beer or two at Bushwood after he got off work and we turned the mics on for a little over half an hour.

In retrospect, recording at happy hour in a bar may have been a questionable decision and I have to own that decision, myself. Ryan had doubts.

There’s a fair amount of background noise (no, we aren’t using fancy mixing equipment that allows us to dial that stuff down), but, hey, just pretend you were with us at the bar, ok?

If you’d like to listen to us discuss the respective starts of the Twins and Orioles (Ryan’s favorite MLB team) and a bit about the Kernels and the upcoming June draft, feel free to click here and give it a listen.

The big mystery, now, is whether this is something we will ever try to do again.

-Steve

When Can Twins Fans Say It Out Loud?

We’ve all been thinking it. We’ve tried to rationalize, in our minds and even in our public statements.

But privately, every one of us in Twinsville has been thinking it.

Yes, the season is still young, with only 12 games in the book and 150 still ahead.

Yes, the Twins, as a whole, have been surprisingly competitive, thanks to better than expected pitching being backed up by defense that’s superior to pretty much anything we’ve seen in Twins uniforms during the Target Field era.

Still, nobody who has watched this team can claim that the Twins engine is hitting on all cylinders.

So let’s just put it out there.

What the hell is wrong with Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer? And when is someone going to do something about it?

Byron Buxton launched this home run in spring training – and has barely made contact with his bat since. (Photo: SD Buhr)

The Twins’ Opening Day lineup had Buxton in the number three spot and Mauer batting cleanup. Obviously, manager Paul Molitor and the other decision makers were expecting some pretty decent productivity at the plate out of both guys.

To say that hasn’t happened would be an understatement of near-epic proportions.

Through Sunday’s game, Buxton is hitting just .093 and Mauer’s batting average is not much more impressive.

Mauer’s .190 BA is bad enough, but his .434 OPS has to be embarrassing for a guy that should be justifiably proud of a .391 career on-base percentage, alone.

I’ll grant that both guys have made contributions to the Twins’ surprisingly strong start, but those contributions have come almost exclusively with their gloves.

Buxton has made multiple highlight-reel catches in centerfield and Mauer has been impressive at first base.

If there’s been a weakness in the Twins’ defense, so far, it has been on the left side of their infield where Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco have been a little erratic at times and Mauer has looked awfully good to me at picking their throws out of the dirt at first base.

Still, with the Twins sitting at 7-5 through their first dozen games of the season, we can’t help but ask ourselves just how good this team could be looking if Buxton and Mauer were just performing at a level we might grudgingly call “okay” at the plate.

I’m not going to suggest that Molitor should go off the deep end and bench either of these players after just two weeks. That would be an overreaction. After all, Buxton has had just 46 plate appearances and Mauer only 45.

By the end of the season, Joe Mauer is going to be hitting .260. He’ll show limited power, but will have his share of doubles. It’s what Joe Mauer does. It’s not ideal, especially for a first baseman, but with ByungHo Park on the shelf with a bad hamstring at the moment, it’s not likely that the Twins would consider a change at first base any time soon (though we might want to make note that Ben Paulsen has three home runs and is sporting a 1.051 OPS in Rochester already).

As for Buxton, we have to keep in mind that, not withstanding their early record, the Twins are still in a rebuilding process and Byron Buxton is still very likely to be a major cog in the machine that we all hope will eventually bring postseason baseball back to Target Field.

Joe Mauer (Photo: SD Buhr)

That being the case, you do whatever you think is necessary to get him straightened out at the plate, no matter how long it takes.

I don’t think sending him to AAA would do much good and sitting him on the bench won’t improve his plate appearances. The only chance he has of learning to hit big league pitching, at this point, is to keep facing big league pitching.

And here’s something else worth keeping in mind: Perhaps the best thing that could happen in terms of accelerating the Twins’ return to September significance would be to see pitchers such as Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago put up stats strong enough to induce bidding wars among teams in need of pitching at midseason.

There is no doubt that having Buxton in centerfield makes the stat lines of every pitcher that takes the mound look better. You could possibly make the same argument for Mauer at first base, for that matter.

So Mauer and Buxton aren’t going anywhere and they’re going to be penciled into the lineup by Molitor almost every day. We can resign ourselves to that and hope their bats wake up.

Still, nobody can be blamed for openly wondering how many more games this Twins team, as currently constructed, could be winning if Buxton and Mauer were carrying their own weight… or at least hitting their weight.

Twins Brass Setting Molitor Up to Fail?

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.

Twins GM That Levine

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.

Are You Ready For Some Baseball?

Yes, it has been a while since I posted anything, so I’ll be surprised if anyone still remembers we have this blog, but I’m back home after a couple of weeks in Florida and it’s almost time for the baseball season to begin. So, let’s fire up the blog again and see whether we, as Twins fans, have enough this season to even be worth talking about.

We are not off to a great start.

First of all, the new Twins front office did virtually nothing in their first offseason on the job to improve the team. I was asked during a brief radio interview on KMRY in Cedar Rapids this week what I felt about the Twins’ fortunes in 2017 after spending time at their spring training site in March. I’ll say the same thing here that I said in response during that interview.

The Twins did nothing to improve their team in the offseason, so any improvement will have to come from further development of their existing young roster, guys like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, et al.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe that Buck, Max and friends like Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario should indeed mature and see their games improve.

The bad news is that none of those guys can pitch. (Well, Buxton probably COULD, but it ain’t happening.)

This morning, many of the final roster moves were announced and we found out that the Twins will start the season with 13 pitchers and without the player that perhaps had the best spring training of anyone in camp, Byung ho Park, who was sent down and will apparently start his season in Rochester.

That leaves the Twins with just three bench bats and none of them are guys you would want to see come to the plate even as a pinch hitter.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that the new front office is scared to death of their pitching staff. I understand that because I think most of us have been afraid of this pitching staff for a long time. But they had all offseason to address their obvious pitching needs and did virtually nothing to improve it.

So, to tell us they sent Park down because they felt they ended up needing more pitchers is really an indictment on their poor work in obtaining pitching during the offseason. Fans should not let them off the hook easily if this all blows up.

Now that I have that rant out of the way, let me just pass on some observations I had down in Fort Myers.

As always, I spent a fair amount of time on the minor league side of the complex watching past and future Cedar Rapids Kernels work out.

My sense, as I shared Tuesday on the MN Sports Weekly podcast, as well as the KMRY interview, is that the Kernels will have a better offensive lineup this season than they had a year ago and it appears that at least half of the team’s pitching rotation that finished the 2016 season will be returning to start 2017.

Lewin Diaz and Shane Carrier should add pop to the middle of the order and, for now anyway, it appears that Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis will return to start the new season in CR. That group could produce some runs if other guys can get on base with regularity.

It doesn’t look like slugger Amourys Minier will break camp with the Kernels at this point, but he should help out when he arrives later in the season, as could other bats such as Trey Cabbage and Wander Javier.

Jermaine Palacios will return and be among a large group of middle infielders worthy of getting opportunities in Cedar Rapids during the season.

Let’s wrap up with a few pictures from my time in Fort Myers.

Fort Myers Beach – yes there is something other than baseball to do on a mid 80s March day in Florida.
IF Aaron Whitefield and C Ben Rortvedt
Tyler Beardsley should be returning to Cedar Rapids
Ariel Montesino makes a bare handed play as Wander Javier looks on.
Byron Buxton goes deep in the first inning against the Orioles.
Jorge Polanco gets congratulated after a grand slam home run.

 

Kernels Hot Stove/Twins Caravan Reception

The Minnesota Twins once again included Cedar Rapids, the home of their Class A affiliate Kernels, in their Twins Winter Caravan tour and last night’s event was entertaining and about as enjoyable as any such event put on by a 100+ loss big league organization could be.

Kris Atteberry emcees the panel of Trevor May, Byron Buxton, Tommy Watkins, Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman

The venue was one of several new aspects of this year’s Kernels Hot Stove event, the primary fundraiser for the organization’s charitable foundation.

Rather than using a large hotel ballroom to hold a sit-down dinner, the Kernels hosted a reception at the New Bo City Market, a showplace for a variety of local food merchants. All food, beer and wine available at the event was provided by New Bo vendors, giving the event a distinctively local flavor.

Broadcaster Kris Atteberry did a terrific job as the emcee for the Twins Caravan portion of the program, doling out opportunities to address the gathering to five members of the Twins organization gathered on stage. They included a pair of Twins players, pitcher Trevor May and outfielder Byron Buxton, newly announced Kernels manager Tommy Watkins, new Twins General Manager Thad Levine and Brian Dinkelman, who served as the Kernels hitting coach in 2016 and, while no official announcement has been made as yet, is presumed to be serving in that capacity this summer, as well.

In addition to responding to Atteberry’s prepared questions from the podium and answering questions from the crowd, the Caravan participants also were available for media interviews.

Here are a few highlights from one-on-one interviews, as well as the public portion of the program.

Early in January, the Twins and Kernels announced that Watkins, who served as the Kernels hitting coach, under former manager Jake Mauer, from 2013 through 2015 and in the same capacity for Class AA Chattanooga last season, will get his first opportunity as a minor league manager in 2017 when he takes the Kernels’ reins.

Watkins said that he and farm director Brad Steil had discussed the possibility of Watkins getting a managing opportunity for the past couple of years, but no such position had opened up until last year’s Fort Myers Miracle manager Jeff Smith got promoted to a coaching position with the Twins this offseason. Still, Watkins said, “I didn’t know if I would get it or not.”

Trevor May and Tommy Watkins react to Byron Buxton explaining how he “noodled” a catfish

Once the assignment was officially offered, Watkins was very happy to accept. “It was just like the news I got when I was going to the big leagues. I was happy, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn’t want to go. So it was a lot of things. I cried, I laughed, I called my family and told them. It was exciting news.”

Asked by Atteberry to tell the gathering what went into the front office’s decision to offer the job to Watkins, Levine led off with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I’ve got to be honest with you, I have no idea how this came to pass. This is news to me. I’ll try to adjust on the fly.”

Levine then turned serious – and very complimentary toward the new Kernels manager.

“I think that one thing you guys always hear about is that we’re trying to develop players, there’s a development track. But I think the other thing that we’re trying to develop concurrently is staff members. Guys who have a chance, on the scouting side, to influence decision making and, on the coaching side, a chance to be Major League coaches.

“One of the things that I heard when I first joined the Minnesota Twins was about the man to my right, Tommy, and I think the universal feeling was that he had a chance to be a really good hitting coach, but he had the chance to be special as a manager. So when the opportunity presented itself to give him an opportunity to pursue his career as a manager, I think everybody in the organization really endorsed him because we felt as if that’s where he’s going to be a difference maker.

“We think he’s going to have a chance to be a Major League coach down the road. We think in the short term, he has a chance to really influence our minor league players, and as a manager we think his impact could be even greater than it was as a hitting coach.

“He’s a special man. He’s very charismatic. He knows the game of baseball. He’s still trying to learn every single day. Each time I’ve been around him, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know him a little bit better. This guy’s a very dynamic man. He’s going to be a leader in our organization for a long time to come and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.”

TC Bear made the trip to Cedar Rapids with the rest of the Twins Caravan crew

Watkins said before the event that he’s looking forward to his return to the Kernels. “It feels good. I had a bunch of different emotions but I’m excited. It feels like I’ve been gone for a lot longer than just a year, but it’s good to be back. I enjoyed my time here and I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked by Atteberry to set the line on how many times Watkins will be ejected by umpires in 2017, Brian Dinkelman didn’t hesitate before saying. “I set it at 3 1/2.”

Buxton said he’s been feeling good since his hot finish to last season in September. “I’ve been hitting since late November, working on a few things and getting some stuff kinked out, but other than that, I feel great.

“I’m just focusing a little bit more on hitting, being a little bit more consistent, using my legs, staying down through the ball, keeping my head down. Just small things to help me out in the long run.”

He said he didn’t think there was any major change in his game that led to his strong finish to the 2016 season.

“Just stop thinking. Just run out there and play baseball. Have fun, going out there and have fun with teammates. We competed, September was different for everybody, not just including me. We went out there with a different mindset to finish the season strong and carry that over into spring training and this season.”

Looking back at his time in Cedar Rapids as a teenager barely out of high school, he said the dream of playing big league ball has turned out to be everything he hoped for, “and more.”

“Not many people are able to make it up there to the bigs, so I’m very blessed and thankful to get up there. Just being able to play beside Trevor when he’s up there pitching, not many people can say you’ve been in a big league uniform and you’ve been behind a pitcher like him that gives it his all and you’re right there giving it your all and trying to compete for a World Series ring.”

For his part, May also indicated he’s feeling good after having  some trouble staying healthy in 2016.

“I’m feeling good,” said May. “I had some patterns I needed to break. In the past, I’ve always thought four months was enough to heal from everything in the offseason. But I’ve come to the realization that breaking down a muscle and building it back up again to where you want it to work just takes time.”

He said even little things such as posture, while standing or sitting, have been items he’s focused on this offseason, with an emphasis on workouts that increase his flexibility, like Pilates and yoga, rather than weight training.

“I was doing a bunch of stuff that was just exacerbating the problem 24 hours a day. Changing all those things has been a lot of work, but I’m excited to just keep doing what I’m doing into the season.

“I threw a bullpen today. If I threw a bullpen when my back was tight back there, I would definitely feel some stiffness right now after I threw and I don’t feel stiff at all, so I’m just taking that as a really good sign.”

May wasn’t just trying new things in regard to his offseason workout regimen. While he did some DJing again this year, as he has in the past, he also expanded his horizons.

“I actually have a new hobby,” he explained. “I broadcast video games, which has been really fun. It’s like having your own radio show in which you talk and play video games. I really enjoy it. I’m going to try to do it once a month on an offday during the season. I’m going to host tournaments of games I play for viewers.”

Asked to evaluate the state of the Twins’ farm system, now that many of their previous top prospects have broken into the big leagues, new GM Levine said that the Twins front office doesn’t necessarily look at the organization strictly in terms of players that have exhausted their eligibility for Rookie of the Year awards and those that have not.

“I think we look at the farm system as an extension to the Major Leagues, so any guy in the Major Leagues who has two or fewer years of service is part of that next wave, that core,” he said. “So I think when you include those players with your minor league players, you can really see the waves of players coming.

“There’s a wave in the big leagues right now, there’s a wave right behind them, there’s a wave that will be playing at Cedar Rapids this year. I think we’re excited about the depth throughout our system, inclusive of the Major Leagues and I think if you include that young group in the Major Leagues all the way down, you could see that the future is very bright.

“For a team that has the payroll that we will have, you’re looking at having as many young players who can impact the game as possible and I think you’ve got to look at the guys who have matriculated to the big leagues when you’re factoring that.”

The subject of the relatively public flirtation with trading second baseman Brian Dozier came up both in the interview setting and during the public Question & Answer session.

Levine indicated that, while it certainly appears that Dozier will be opening the season with the Twins, he wouldn’t say the door was completely closed on the possibility of moving Dozier, or any other player for that matter.

“I don’t know that we would talk specifically about any one trade negotiation, but I think the way Derek (Falvey) and I are going to operate is that we’re not closing doors at any juncture. At that point, you are not doing your job to the fullest. Any time you close off opportunities to improve the team, I think you’re doing the franchise a disservice.”

Buxton and May did the autograph thing after the Twins Caravan program

During the public session, Levine was asked specifically what he expected Dozier’s future was with the Twins.

“I think we think his future is going to be glorious with the franchise,” he responded. “He’s been the consummate professional throughout this process. We always approached this from the mindset of, the best the Minnesota Twins could be would be with Brian Dozier. If someone wants to blow our socks off, we’ll consider talking about him. But for that fact, we see him as part of this franchise moving forward.”

Atteberry asked Levine to address the “stats vs scouting” issue that comes up in almost any conversation about thenew front office management. Again, the new GM mixed humor into his more thoughtful response.

“When the movie Moneyball came out, everybody who was below a certain age – at that time, I would say 35, now I would say 45, just conveniently (Levine celebrated his 45th birthday in November) – you were viewed to be more of a formulaic-based decision making group vs if you were older, you were more of a scouts guy. And I think it’s a bit of a misconception.

“Derek and I are both guys who are going to have analytics and scouting and player development factor into every decision that we make. We’re not going to focus singularly on any sort of formula to spit out a decision we’re going to make.

“The other big misconception I think about that movie is that anybody working in a front office looks at all like Brad Pitt. We really don’t. Honestly.

“So the movie did some disservices across the board, but I do think analytics plays a role in decision making, but that’s all it is. It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not something that is going to drive us to make any singular decision. It will be something we weigh in, we factor in, but it’s not going to drive our decision making.”

Also during the public session, Atteberry challenged Levine to demonstrate how much he knew about the two players he was sharing a stage with. Atteberry presented a few bits of trivia and asked Levine to guess which player, May or Buxton, the fact pertained to.

The questions were: Which player DJ’d at his own wedding? Which one of them has the highest vertical jump and is the fastest runner in his family (and which is not)? Which has successfully noodled a catfish? And which one has a mother that kept a mountain lion as a pet for four years?

The answers: May (obviously), Buxton is NOT the fastest runner or best jumper in his family (he said his dad jumps higher, his brother is faster and he has a 13-year old sister that may eventually pass them all), but Buxton did noodle a catfish. It was May’s mother who kept a mountain lion as a pet.

And Levine nailed every answer correctly.

Two members of the “Knuckleballs” table took home door prizes. A May & Buxton signed jersey and a Twins stocking cap

The final question from the audience asked Watkins and Buxton to relate the funniest thing that happened to them during their time with the Kernels.

Suffice to say that you won’t find Buxton playing baseball with ping pong balls in the clubhouse again any time soon and Watkins’ days of shaving his head are over.

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

What do you get from me when it’s three degrees outside and I have no desire to even look outside, much less go there, and I have nothing interesting to do inside? You get Creedence Clearwater Revival, that’s what you get.

Long as I remember the rain been comin’ down
Clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.
Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

I’ve been a Twins fan ever since the first day there were Minnesota Twins to be a fan of so, as far as the Twins’ history is concerned, I have quite literally seen it all.

There have been some good times.

Sandy Koufax broke my heart in 1965, but the Twins team that took Koufax and Don Drysdale seven games in that World Series will quite likely remain my favorite group of Twins forever.

The Championship teams of 1987 and 1991 were special, as well. And while they never quite lived up to our expectations, the teams of the 2000s were a lot of fun to watch. Many of those players were at least indirectly responsible for the Twins avoiding possible contraction. Without them, there might be no Minnesota Twins today.

Still, there’s probably no song lyric that could describe my feeling toward the Twins of the past decade-and-a-half than, “clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground.”

When the Twins used the first pick in the 2001 draft to select local high school catcher Joe Mauer, they were also celebrating the 10th Anniversary of their most recent trip the World Series.

The hope was that Mauer would join an evolving young group of players, including pitcher Brad Radke and the outfield’s “soul patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton, to help Minnesota fans put the bitter memories of contraction, Kirby Puckett’s forced retirement and the general confusion that tainted the final years of manager Tom Kelly’s tenure behind them.

We almost took for granted that General Manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire would blend Mauer, along with the likes of Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Johan Santana, into a group that would ultimately bring new World Series memories to another generation of Twins fans.

I could never figure out why Gardenhire, Ryan and the players who were perennial American League Central champions so consistently fell short of the World Series, especially since, once you fall short a couple of times, you really should have a pretty solid idea of what you need to do to take that final step the next time.

Whatever the reasons, the job didn’t get done.

I went down Virginia seekin’ shelter from the storm
Caught up in the fable I watched the tower grow
Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.
And I wonder still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Despite the lack of postseason success, nobody wanted to totally break up the band.

One reason they couldn’t get over that hump, we were told, was that the Twins were stuck playing in an oversized pillow built for football. The Twins had a bad lease at the Metrodome and couldn’t fiscally afford to even keep their own top players, much less attract free agents from elsewhere.

The prospect of losing most, if not all, of the core players that seemed to have the club on the verge of bringing another World Series to the Twin Cities, was agonizingly familiar to fans of my generation.

We had, after all, lived through the Calvin Griffith era where, during the early years of free agency, Griffith would trade away any star player that even approached being moderately expensive to retain. The guy alienated and traded away Rod Carew, for crying out loud!

So, I was happy when, despite the questionable fiscal wisdom of public funding for sports venues, the good people of the Twin Cities (or at least a couple of influential politicians among the populace) built the Twins a beautiful new ballpark, ostensibly assuring that the club would be able to afford to retain the best of their home grown talent long enough to see them raise more World Series banners.

Suddenly, the Twins were swimming in new revenue. Certainly a World Series was just beyond the horizon.

Heard the singers playin’, how we cheered for more.
The crowd had rushed together tryin’ to keep warm.
Still the rain kept pourin’, fallin’ on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder who’ll stop the rain.

Target field brought record attendance, but the fortunes of the Twins in the won-loss column did not improve. Quite the opposite, in fact.

That didn’t keep us from enjoying Target Field, of course, even during chilly, damp early-season games. We were finally watching baseball outdoors again – the way it was intended to be – and Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer, joined for a while by former nemesis Jim Thome, gave us plenty of excitement in the first couple years of the new ballpark

Eventually, however, the promising “young” players got old and moved on, leaving only an aging Mauer to serve as a veteran presence in the clubhouse for the next generation.

Now, two years after Gardenhire was shown the door, Terry Ryan has followed him. As crowds at Target field have dwindled, the crowds of disenchanted fans with pitchforks calling for the heads of those in charge of the team grew in number and volume, ultimately (and understandably) costing both men their jobs.

The cheers heralding the arrival of the new Twins brass, Derek Falvey and Thad Levineis are impossible to miss. They seem like good choices to lead the Twins into the future. They have the pedigree teams are looking for – business and analytics backgrounds, along with some residual respect for old-school scouting.

David Laurila, over at Fangraphs, posted an interview he conducted with Falvey and Levine at the recent Winter Meetings in Washington and it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue with any of what they shared concerning their philosophies.

I like what I read and hear about both men and I’m putting a great deal of faith in them. I believe they will bring another World Series to Minnesota. I believe they will stop the rain. I have to believe that. I’ve only got a limited number of “rebuilds” left in me.

If Falvey and Levine fail, they’ll ultimately be replaced by some other combination of executives who will bring their unique talents and philosophies to the job. They’ll also get several years to rebuild the organization to suit those philosophies.

Maybe you can afford to wait through another long cycle of futility and rebuilding, but I may not have that option.

It has been 25 years since Jack Morris shut out the Braves to cap what was quite possibly the best World Series in history and, sure, I may be fortunate enough to have another 25 years to wait. Let’s be honest, though. The actuaries in your family wouldn’t allow you to bet much money on my chances. (By the way, if you have actuaries in your family, I’m really, really sorry. Just be thankful they aren’t lawyers.)

I felt the pouring rain Griffith allowed to fall on us through most of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the stale-aired rain that Carl Pohlad inexcusably allowed to permeate the Teflon roof of the Metrodome for a decade after the Twins’ last championship.

.Will Derek Falvey and Thad Levine finally stop the rain? I sure hope so… and I hope it’s soon.