Rocco Baldelli’s first season as a big-league manager showed him to be a guy who made decisions based on analytics, but also included a laid-back approach that empowered his players at nearly every turn. Baldelli displayed great patience and appeared incapable of being flustered.
It was the ideal approach for a 162-game season and helped result in the Twins winning 101 games and the AL Central title. As the Twins prepare to open their coronavirus-delayed season on Friday against the White Sox in Chicago, the question isn’t just what Baldelli will do for an encore, but also how he might alter his approach in what will be a 60-game sprint?
Baseball is one sport where time is usually on your side. A team gets off to a slow start and there is always tomorrow. A player slumps in June and nobody worries because he has time to hit, or pitch, his way out of it. A guy makes a mistake that costs his team a game and the hope is he learns from the miscue in a long season.
Baldelli subscribes to all of these theories, which is what will make this season so interesting. There will be a clock ticking that doesn’t ordinarily start until August. Baldelli, the 2019 AL Manager of the Year, is big on rest and recovery, but how is he going to handle days off for players? Ordinarily, it would be easy to give Nelson Cruz or Josh Donaldson a rest, or make sure a reliever doesn’t get too much work in a short period.
That luxury doesn’t exist this season, where even a brief rough stretch could derail a team. Baldelli — along with Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations, and general manager Thad Levine — will have to reassess how they assess certain situations and matters.
A perfect example emerged during the Twins’ 4-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field. That will be the only exhibition game the Twins play in their lead up to the season and it created an immediate concern.
Veteran righthander Homer Bailey, who signed a one-year, $7 million contract in December, started for the Twins and gave up four runs, five hits, two walks and struck out three in three innings. Bailey’s rough outing included two home runs surrendered in the first inning, a two-run blast by Anthony Rizzo and a solo shot by Wilson Contreras, and another homer by Contreras in the third inning. The last one was a monster shot to center field.
Bailey, who had a 4.80 ERA in 18 starts for the Royals last season and a 4.30 ERA in 13 starts with the A’s, is the exact type of pitcher that Falvey likes to sign and hope that pitching coach Wes Johnson can turn around, at least for a short period of time. Lefthander Martin Perez, now with the Boston Red Sox, was that guy in 2019 for the Twins.
The problem is that there isn’t time for Bailey to work through any issues this season. What makes Bailey’s potential early-season struggles more troublesome is the fact the Twins have placed No. 2 starter Jake Odorizzi on the 10-day injured list because of mild upper-back soreness. That means the Twins could open the season with a four-man rotation of Jose Berrios, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Bailey. But how long would Baldelli be willing to stick with Bailey before he turns to Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer or Lewis Thorpe?
Ordinarily, this type of talk would qualify as unnecessary panic at the outset of a season — I know all about unnecessary panic — but this time around it’s a legitimate concern. This might change a bit if the talk of having an expanded playoff format for 2020 comes to fruition, but right now we are looking at an MLB season in which no loss can be dismissed as insignificant and no slump can be ignored.
Baldelli might not like that fact but for one season he is going to have to deal with it and adjust accordingly.