To paraphrase Ron Gardenhire, the recently fired manager of the Minnesota Twins: This ought to be entertaining.
Paul Molitor is 58, with the ruddy complexion of someone 68, who might feel 78 halfway through his first season as a big-league manager. Throughout his introduction as Gardenhire’s successor last week at Target Field, Molitor avoided the bluster and hyperbole that typically circles back to ensnare speakers who try too hard to “win the press conference.” That’s executive code for convincing fans their lousy team won’t be lousy much longer.
One thing Molitor is not — at least, not now — is a con man. He takes over a team still reeling from the shortcomings that produced four consecutive 90-loss seasons: Personnel blunders, questionable player development, ineffective Latin American operations, and tardy responses to the game’s evolution.
A lot went into this malaise, and it will take a lot to fix it, more than hiring a savvy Hall of Famer from St. Paul to write the lineup. As Molitor told MinnPost late in the season, disgusted fans aren’t interested in rosy predictions or farm system propaganda. They want a better team, pronto. No B.S. No excuses.
“I’m not a guy who’s going to sit up here and go, ‘Hang in there fans, we’ve got help on the way,’” Molitor said. “We’ve been hearing that. We all hope it’s true. I have a lot of trust and faith in our scouting department, our player development people. When (players are) ready, they’ll be here. Hopefully we’ll see some of those guys down the road. But we’ve got to worry about what’s here. Now is important. We’ve had four years of struggle.”
So how did things get this bad?
1. The starting pitching gap
Historically, the Twins are a hitting organization. Ask a casual baseball fan to name five Twins greats, and most names that come back will be hitters. Harmon Killebrew. Tony Oliva. Rod Carew. Kirby Puckett. Of the club’s six retired player numbers (not counting Jackie Robinson, whose No. 42 is retired baseball-wide), only one belongs to a pitcher – Bert Blyleven’s No. 28.
That’s not to say the Twins never develop pitchers. Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano blossomed after the Twins acquired them from Houston and San Francisco, respectively. But traditionally, the Twins aren’t known for it. And lately it’s been a glaring deficiency.
The Twins were late to embrace the trend of tall pitchers with power arms, sticking too long with an outdated pitch-to-contact philosophy. Even after breaking that mold by picking 6-foot-6 Kyle Gibson in the first round in 2009, they reverted to form with Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers in 2010. Wimmers is 8-8 in five minor-league seasons and has yet to reach Class AAA, while two harder throwers taken earlier in that draft — Chris Sale of the White Sox, and Matt Harvey of the Mets — are already major-league stars.
That followed a half-decade of bad decisions and bad luck, including Liriano’s 2006 elbow injury. The Twins dealt the promising Matt Garza to Tampa Bay in the 2007 Delmon Young deal. They watched home-grown starters Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey plateau and flame out with injuries. The next crop of starters — Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak — proved better suited for relief. Perkins was one of four pitchers the Twins drafted in the first or supplemental rounds in 2004, and the only one who succeeded in the majors.
Failing to develop your own pitchers forces you to find them elsewhere, an expensive and unreliable proposition. The Twins spent millions on Mike Pelfrey, Phil Hughes, and Ricky Nolasco as free agents, with only Hughes (16-10, 3.52) justifying the cost. After their starting staff posted the highest earned run average in baseball two years running, the search continues.
2. A lack of commitment to Latin America
Until the revenue-boosting move to Target Field in 2010, the Twins lacked the cash and the wherewithal to compete for top prospects in Latin America. Instead, the Twins invested in Australia, Europe, Taiwan, Korea and South Africa, with little to show for it.
Smart clubs scour the Dominican Republic for power arms and especially middle infielders. But the Twins were one of the last clubs to establish an academy there, in 2004. And for years their academy in Venezuela, which opened in 1995, missed out on top talent. Miguel Cabrera worked out for then-scouting director Mike Radcliffe in Venezuela in 1999, but the Marlins signed Cabrera to a $1.8 million bonus deal after Twins owner Carl Pohlad forbade Radcliffe from exceeding $1 million.
It’s hard to win without Latin American players. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said the Royals spent less than any other club in Latin America from 1996 to 2006, and it showed: The Royals had only one winning season.
“That’s one of the things Dan Glass (the team president) wanted to change,” Moore told me last summer. “He wanted a bigger presence in Latin America.” Why? Because the best athletes in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba play baseball, all the time. Quality middle infielders are hard to find in the U.S., he said, because too many with the best skills gravitate to football.
It took awhile for that presence to pay off. This season, boosted by Venezuelan catcher Salvador Perez and Dominican pitchers Yordana Ventura and Kelvin Herrera, the Royals reached their first World Series since 1985.
The Twins made inroads in Latin America before Pohlad’s death in January 2009, but Pohlad’s son Jim stepped up the commitment. Eight months later the Twins gave Dominican teenager Miguel Sano a $3.15 million bonus, a club record for a non-American.
Now the Twins are much more competitive there. Fred Guerrero, son of legendary Dominican scout Epy Guerrero and the club’s chief scout in the D.R., signed Sano and Danny Santana. More are coming, so Molitor and general manager Terry Ryan plan to hire at least one Hispanic coach.
3. Poor Discipline and fundamentals
Even when the Twins were still winning division titles, too many players ran into outs on the bases, botched bunts and cutoffs, took undisciplined swings and committed fundamental mistakes. Pre-game individual instruction from Gardenhire and his staff couldn’t stop it.
So the Twins made multiple staff changes in the farm system, among them hiring managers Gene Glynn at Class AAA Rochester and Doug Mientkiewicz at Class A Fort Myers, both good teachers. It helped; Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas arrived in mid-season better prepared for major-league play than most. But much work remains.
This is where Molitor and his staff can make the greatest impact. In the World Series, San Francisco and Kansas City showed the benefits of smart, aggressive baserunning and dependable defense. On a team like the Twins, playing with intelligence closes a talent gap faster than anything. “We’re a young club,” Ryan said. “We need somebody who can teach. Paul can do that.”
Glen Perkins, who attended Tuesday’s press conference with fellow Minnesotan Joe Mauer, remembers Molitor conducting a baserunning tutorial for pitchers (pitchers!) in spring training, a lesson Perkins still remembers for its insight and detail. On a fly ball, Perkins recalled Molitor running through the factors that determine whether you tag up or stay put. Is the outfielder backpedaling aimlessly or setting himself up to throw? How good is his arm? Is he left-handed or right-handed? Will he need to pivot to throw, or just gun it in?
“I was out there after the fact thinking, I’m never going to be in this situation, but I was enthralled by what he was saying,” Perkins said.
It was Molitor, Perkins said, who pushed Gardenhire to rely more on exaggerated defensive shifts — another thing the Twins were late to adopt. “Shifts work,” Molitor said. “The information is in. They’re taking away more hits than they’re giving up.”
And Molitor offered a glimpse of his priorities when asked where the Twins can improve.
“If you watch the postseason, pitching, pitching and pitching, right? It’s incredible,” he said. “You’ve got to do the right things surrounding that. You’ve got to protect your pitchers by making plays. You’ve got to play defense. And offensively, you’ve got to find ways to score runs.
“We’re playing in a park here where speed and aggressiveness and being intelligent baserunners is very important. Hopefully part of the stamp I put on is making these guys understand the critical aspect of being good baserunners and learning how to score runs.”
That would be especially entertaining. And welcome.