I’m not banking on what happened last year, but I do have that optimism because I know what we’re capable of doing. I need to stay calm through the storm and try to find a way to build confidence in these guys.
— Twins manager Paul Molitor after a 4-1 loss on Opening Day
Second-year Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor has remained serene throughout the season. He hasn’t thrown any chairs, had a breakdown at the podium or even so much as raised his voice when challenged. If he’s lost it, he’s lost it behind closed doors. He’s also been relatively optimistic. Like the Twins organization, he’s been patient with young players, and, frankly, a team with little depth at the shortstop and catcher position and a pitching staff that owns the second-worst ERA in major league baseball.
But as his team tries to fend off the second 100-loss season in club history, he also knows exactly where they stand. Even with Brian Dozier’s hunt for 40 home runs, James Beresford recording his first hit at age 27 after over 1,000 games and nearly 4,400 plate appearances in the minors and Joe Mauer’s walk-off winner on Saturday, he says the team’s record weighs heavily on him.
“I love the positives: watching Dozier, and Jimmy’s story and his journey. Those are all really good things to talk about, have some fun with, and they can bring a smile to your face,” he said on Sunday. “On a day-to-day basis, I’m kinda looking at more of trying to finish here — what are we gonna try to do today? Who are we gonna give a chance to play? Just keep trying to find ways to do things the right way.”
I always thought is 99 that much [better] than 100?
He’s even been blunt about the whole 100-loss situation, which seems to become more and more inevitable as the season comes to a close. “We all know that 100 losses is out there and all that kind of stuff, and I look at it still day-to-day rather than trying to find a way to avoid losing however many more to get to that number,” he said, unsolicited, highlighting rather than hiding from the proverbial elephant in the room. “I always thought is 99 that much more than 100? But that’s for down the road.”
Molitor and the Twins won 83 games last season, of course, propelled by a 20-7 record in May — a month where just about everything seemed to go right. This year an 0-9 start caught the Twins, and even the most pessimistic fans and pundits, by surprise and seems to have turned the whole organization from optimists to realists. Terry Ryan, the man who served as general manager from 1994-2007 and then 2011 to this year, told the media that he believed Minnesota could contend for the AL Central this season. He resigned from his post in July. In time the whole front office will probably be — or at least should be — audited and overhauled.
Even with a potential management makeover, Twins owner Jim Pohlad vocally backed Molitor in a letter to the Twins’ season-ticket holders. “We believe in the presence and baseball acumen of Hall of Famer Paul Molitor,” Pohlad wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Pioneer Press. “In my mind, the tools that made him successful as a player — determination, grit and intelligence — make him the right person to lead our team into the future.”
Expanding on that, Molitor’s even-temper and pragmatism, as well as willingness to let go of his accomplishments as a player (“He hit it a lot better,” Molitor said of Ichiro’s 3000th hit, which like Molitor’s was a triple. “Both of them the right fielder had a chance, but mine was a lot more luck than his was luck.”) to focus on being a manager, are the qualities of a leader. That and, well, the Twins did win 83 games last season.
This isn’t all to say there isn’t reason for optimism at Target Field, however, even with their abysmal record. Dozier is under a cost-friendly deal, and will either lock down second base for the next two years or be dealt for pitching help in the offseason.
J.T. Chargois and Alex Wimmers, two relievers selected early in the draft, have shown signs of improvement. “Wimmers has done a really nice job in terms of his ability to go out there and be the same guy that he was working his way back here in the last year in particular,” Molitor said on Sunday. “Chargois’ been a little bit up and down. The last few have been much better, and it looks like he is just gonna let it fly with that fastball and try to get ahead, get in a good spot, and then he can use his other pitches.”
And Byron Buxton has finally started to show why he was once one of the best prospects in baseball. “I just have to be pleased that the results have been better, and what kind of talks he’s had with himself along the way,” said Molitor. “But these last few weeks, I’m not sure, but it seems like he’s come up here determined to just kinda let his ability fly — succeed or fail.”
That’s not to mention the tear that Max Kepler was on in August. Or that Miguel Sano has hit over 20 home runs this year. Or that Jorge Polanco has looked alright at shortstop while hitting .295/.340/.422 in 190 plate appearances through Sunday.
That freedom that he referred to in his introductory press conference is the freedom to be candid
The biggest advantage Molitor has as a Hall of Fame player is that his legacy is already sealed. “This is a different challenge, this is a thing that’s totally separate from my playing,” Molitor said at his introductory press conference in November of 2014. “My playing influenced, obviously, the fact that I’m in this position, but they’re totally separate. I got a text from Jeff Idelson, the president of the Hall of Fame, and he said, ‘Relax, enjoy this, because no matter what you do, your plaque is gonna stay.’ It gave me a little freedom.”
That freedom that he referred to in his introductory press conference is the freedom to be candid. It’s the freedom of serenity in a losing season. It’s the freedom to think aloud what is the difference, really, between a 99-loss season and 100 losses? Because, if everyone is being honest with themselves, both totals are lousy, especially at the conclusion of a fifth losing season in six years.
“Those things are good to have,” Molitor said on Sunday, once again touching on Dozier’s home runs and Beresford’s journey, “and they do help you endure some of the other things that have transpired over the last six-seven months.”