The Twins will begin their 59th season in Minnesota on Thursday with a new manager in the dugout, no Joe Mauer on the field and a top baseball executive who has put his stamp on the franchise in a big way three years into his tenure.
Derek Falvey, who took over as the Twins’ chief baseball officer following the team’s putrid 103-loss season in 2016, spent his first two years making changes in an attempt to modernize the club but there was no getting past the fact the manager, Paul Molitor, wasn’t his hire, and the $23 million first baseman, Mauer, wasn’t a guy he had signed.
Molitor, who had been assured by owner Jim Pohlad that he wouldn’t be fired following 2016, was let go after the Twins went a disappointing 78-84 in 2018. That came after the Twins made a surprising run to the wild card playoff game in 2017, earning Molitor a three-year contract extension. Mauer also decided to retire at the age of 35 last fall.
Rocco Baldelli will be managing his first big-league game on Thursday when the Twins open against Cleveland at Target Field. There will be a new first baseman (C.J. Cron), second baseman (Jonathan Schoop), third baseman (Marwin Gonzalez, replacing the injured Miguel Sano) and designated hitter (Nelson Cruz).
Baldelli, 37, is the youngest manager in the big leagues and is the hand-picked choice of Falvey and general manager Thad Levine. The trio decided to hire a pitching coach, Wes Johnson, who had been working in the college ranks for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Falvey and Levine have built up a not-so-well advertised staff of executives to focus on analytics, and Baldelli is expected to lead a field staff that will be able to deliver complex information in a way players easily can understand.
Many experts expect the Indians to win a fourth consecutive American League Central title, but the division isn’t very good and the Twins should be expected to contend. The Twins should have plenty of opportunities to beat up on division rivals Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City. Cleveland still has top-level pitching — Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are scheduled to start against the Twins — but its lineup has taken a step back.
The Twins, of course, need center fielder Byron Buxton and Sano to rebound from awful 2018 seasons and begin to deliver on the promise that so many once had for them.
It also will help if the 38-year-old Cruz can hit more than 35 home runs for a sixth consecutive season; if Cron can have another 30 home run season, as he did last year in Tampa Bay; if Schoop can bounce back from a disappointing 2018 to deliver the type of power he did in 2017 when he hit 32 home runs; if Opening Day starter Jose Berrios can emerge as a true ace; if a suspect bullpen can overachieve; and on and on and on.
This is not to say there is intense pressure on Falvey and Levine. Not with Baldelli entering his first season, and with the Twins still awaiting the arrival of prospects like shortstop Royce Lewis and the sweet-swinging Alex Kirilloff.
But when you look around Target Field this season, whether it be in the executive suite, in the dugout, or on the field, there will be no confusion about whose team this has become. This is now Falvey and Levine’s show and that means success or failure is on them.