Paul Molitor: Twins Playing ‘Okay’
The Twins are 7-8 so far this season after losing to the Indians yesterday at Target Field. What does manager Paul Molitor think of the club that is coming off a 59-102 record in 2016?
“We’re playing okay,” he told Sports Headliners yesterday morning.
The Twins third-year manager believes the team record in 2017 can be “significantly” better than last season. He knows there are no guarantees the team can move to about a .500 record by early fall, but in the first three weeks of the schedule the pitching and defense have impressed. Molitor also sees a Central Division that has a kingpin in defending AL champ Cleveland but also has a membership of clubs Minnesota can compete with.
Despite a difficult day yesterday giving up 11 hits and six runs against the Indians, the Twins pitching staff’s ERA of 3.18 ranks as the sixth best among 30 major league teams. A surprise showing this spring by Twins pitchers includes lights-out performances by No. 1 starter Ervin Santana who is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA. Closer Brandon Kintzler has three saves in six games with a 0.00 ERA.
Minnesota is tied with two other clubs for fewest errors in the big leagues, with four. Shortstop Jorge Polanco and third baseman Miguel Sano were hardly Gold Glove candidates coming into the season but their work in the field this spring has been professional. The outfield defense pretty much lets nothing drop except rain, with center fielder Byron Buxton perhaps having more range than anyone in baseball.
The Twins, though, have lost seven of their last nine games this season. Five of the team’s seven defeats have been by one or two runs. Of those five games, the club scored only a single run four times. Minnesota has a total of 60 runs this season, with just nine other big league teams scoring fewer.
Maybe the Twins will pick up the offensive production when the weather warms and more bats find their rhythms. Maybe. Truth is the Twins have several inexperienced hitters in their everyday lineup including Buxton, right fielder Max Kepler, left fielder Eddie Rosario and Polanco. None of them can say they don’t have a lot to prove as hitters.
Sano had a news-making rookie season two years ago, then slipped in 2016 when he learned feasting on big league pitching was no given. This season will show if his work ethic and commitment are improved. Can he return to more consistency in 2017?
Outside the Twins organization, fans and media have all but given up on Joe Mauer leading the offense and the locker room. Coming off of seasons when he hit .277, .265 and .261 with a total of 25 home runs, he is off to a .218 start this spring with no home runs and six RBI. At age 34, Mauer shows no sign of producing the kind of numbers that years ago made him a batting champion and one of baseball’s best hitters.
With a glitzy career resume, $23 million salary, and a lifelong commitment to the Twins, you might think Mauer would be a clubhouse leader. But neither today, nor in the past, are there consistent reports about the quiet Minnesotan being a voice in the locker room. The Twins found that voice two years ago when outspoken veteran outfielder Torii Hunter helped lead the Twins to a surprise 83-79 record in Molitor’s first year of managing. Brian Dozier, the 29-year-old second baseman, hit 42 home runs last season and he has tried to be a club leader.
Molitor’s hopes of at least turning the Twins into a .500 or better team this year partially rest on new baseball boss Derek Falvey not trading Dozier away. Ditto Santana. The idea of both going away in return for prospects looks legit if the Twins are struggling in July.
Falvey, 34, was named the franchise’s chief baseball officer last fall. Known as one of the game’s more astute young minds, Falvey and new general manager Thad Levine place an emphasis on obtaining the best information possible on everything baseball related and place a high reliance on analytics. Under Falvey’s watch, the Twins are expanding their information gatherers and number crunchers.
Some early results are already in on the Falvey influence. His offseason signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro looks like a winner. Castro is one of baseball’s best at framing pitches—the term for positioning the catching glove so umpires are more likely to call strikes. The team’s pitching staff does seem improved and Castro is deserving of praise.
Veteran reliever Matt Belisle signed with the Twins as a free agent in February. He has helped the bullpen and his numbers show that with seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings and a 2.84 ERA. Both Belisle and Castro are potential locker room leaders all season.
Since the 2011 season the Twins have lost more than 90 games five times. Because of their dismal records the club has been given high draft choices but Minnesota doesn’t have a lot to show for its opportunities. There is a talent-gap on the roster that could have been assisted by better draft results.
Starting with the 2011 MLB June drafts, the Twins have selected the following players with first round picks: shortstop Levi Michael (2011), outfielder Byron Buxton (2012), pitcher Kohl Stewart (2013), infielder Nick Gordon (2014), pitcher Tyler Jay (2015) and outfielder Alex Kirilloff (2016). Buxton, who is hitting .082, is the only player currently on the major league roster. If you go back to the 2009 draft, the Twins used their No. 1 choice on Kyle Gibson, who is one of their starters but he is coming off a 6-11 record with a 5.07 ERA season last year.
This June the Twins will have the overall first selection in the MLB draft. How Falvey and his associates ultimately do with that opportunity will be another evaluation of their progress in rebuilding a franchise that won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, and division titles in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010.
For right now, though, the Twins need to just end a four game losing streak starting tonight at home against the Tigers. They want to avoid the kind of spring that last year stopped the season before it even started—losing 53 games in April, May and June. At a minimum this club needs to live up to the manager’s evaluation yesterday of playing “okay” while crossing collective fingers for a .500 year.