They own it now.
From this day forward, the garbage scow commonly known as the Minnesota Twins belongs to Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. That realization likely hit the Twins’ top two baseball officials the moment they decided to fire manager Paul Molitor, one year after Molitor was named the American League manager of the year, and two days after Molitor finished coaxing a glorified Class AAA roster to a 28-28 mark in the final two months of an otherwise wretched season.
Halfway through a televised news conference at Target Field, a tense affair heavy with jargon and convoluted answers, a TV camera light to the left of Falvey and Levine suddenly and silently went dark. It made both flinch, Levine more than Falvey, as if someone set off a firecracker. No one else in the room budged. When you’ve staked your jobs on a decision sure to be unpopular, like cutting loose a Hall of Famer and son of St. Paul who did everything you asked of him, discomfort makes you jumpy.
Arithmetic tells you any manager who goes 305-343 in four seasons, as Molitor did, shouldn’t be surprised to lose his job, especially if he’s working for two guys who didn’t hire him in the first place. Yet Molitor may not have seen this coming. Sunday, in what turned out to be his final postgame press gathering as Twins manager, Molitor was jokingly asked whether we might see a repeat of the emotional fan farewell to Joe Mauer if Mauer decides to keep playing.
“Next year at this time we’ll be planning for our next game, so I don’t think the situation will be the same,” Molitor said, a fanciful reference to a postseason he expected to be around for.
Molitor didn’t lose 50 points of baseball IQ in one year. He embraced analytics, defensive shifting and the “opener” pitching trend more than most 62-year-olds with a lifetime in baseball. He can’t be faulted for the injuries to Miguel Sanó, Byron Buxton and Ervin Santana, or Jorge Polanco’s drug suspension, or the awful pitching staff Falvey and Levine stuck him with.
But it’s clear Falvey and Levine wanted their own manager. They lacked the gumption to make the change last year when Molitor guided the Twins to the playoffs, becoming the first club to qualify after a 100-loss season, something that seems even more miraculous given this year’s debacle. Last year Falvey cited his comfort with Molitor and the relationship they built as reasons for extending Molitor’s contract three years, words rendered meaningless by Tuesday’s events.
“When we made this decision, I can tell you it just wasn’t about wins and losses, right now at this moment,” Falvey said. “It was about where our club is for the present and the future. This wasn’t about our record this year. This is about what we think is best as we continue to grow a young team in the direction toward being a championship contender.”
See what I mean by convoluted? Levine, usually the comedian of the pair, had the good sense to read the room and not to crack any jokes, though he talked in even wider circles than Falvey.
You knew something was up a few days ago when owner Jim Pohlad, who two years ago made retaining Molitor a condition for whoever succeeded former general manager Terry Ryan, declined to say if Molitor would manage in 2019, telling the Star Tribune he was leaving it up to Falvey and Levine. “I understand I have veto power,” Pohlad said Tuesday, “but my personal goal is to accept the well-thought-out decisions of the baseball department.”
No doubt Falvey has a managerial short list — all executives do — one that could expand as they hear from unemployed managers and interested coaches from playoff teams. They prefer someone comfortable with analytics, and managerial experience isn’t required. That leaves it open to promote development coach Jeff Pickler or video advance scout Jeremy Hefner, both Falvey favorites.
With a trend toward younger managers, often with little or no experience — think Aaron Boone in New York — the Twins also could opt for a recently retired player, perhaps bilingual, to better relate to their predominantly Latino young core.
“For any team, there’s always challenges with younger players, veteran players, players in between,” Falvey said. “We just feel like from the standpoint of this team moving forward, a change in voice and potential style with some of those younger players could be a benefit for us. … I think Paul is great with a lot of young players. It just felt like the time to make a transition with those young players for the long-term future.”
Even the most polished Twins managerial hire can’t mask the organization’s biggest problems — a lack of quality pitching in the highest levels, and too many injuries top to bottom. Tuesday the Twins also fired their major league, Class AAA and Class AA strength and conditioning coaches, a systemwide overhaul that was probably overdue. Expect some of Molitor’s coaches to go, too.
Falvey, remember, is supposed to be a pitching specialist. But the Twins finished 78-84 because their pitching was unreliable, and the parade of unimpressive Class AAA arms we saw through Target Field the last two months suggests help isn’t close. Maybe Falvey and Levine will get lucky and sign a bunch of free agents for next season who significantly outpitch this year’s group, but that’s not a winning strategy long-term.
To succeed in today’s game, the Twins need to remake themselves from a hitting organization that produces a few serviceable arms to a deep pitching organization. That’s not easy to do. It takes better scouting, better instruction, and leadership from the veteran pitchers you will need to acquire to mentor that first wave of young arms. There’s a reason Ryan Pressly, despite dominant stuff, struggled here but succeeded when he joined the Houston Astros, an organization that knows how to develop pitching.
The managerial change may not affect Joe Mauer’s decision to retire or play on, though quite a few fans suggested hiring him as the next manager. There may be a time and place for that if he’s interested (see: Lindsay Whalen), but this isn’t the time. There’s too much work for Falvey and Levine to do, and the next manager may be fired before it’s complete.
That is, if Falvey and Levine are still here. This is their scow now, and any future stench attaches to them.