Joe Mauer’s potential retirement at the end of the season has captivated the attention of anyone who is still following the Minnesota Twins as this disappointing season comes to a close. But more changes could be coming in the offseason.
Paul Molitor has said he wants to return as manager next year, but he could be removed if Derek Falvey and Thad Levine want their own guy. And even if he is the manager next season, he could see changes to his coaching staff. Chris Gimenez could retire and be on a coaching staff next year. Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves will likely enter Spring Training fighting for a spot in the rotation, and there are no guarantees that Trevor Hildenberger, Taylor Rogers or Trevor May will be the closer on opening day next year.
“I can’t project that,” said Molitor when asked about the closer role. “I don’t know who’s going to be in camp. If we have the same bunch, we’re gonna kind of see which one of those people (earns it) or maybe a couple other candidates might emerge. I really haven’t thought too much about how that’s gonna work because I don’t know what the personnel sheet is going to look like once we get to camp.”
A handful of players are making the case that they should be part of the Twins future, however, regardless of what changes in the offseason. Some, like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, will have an inside track because they are young and showed signs of superstardom before this year. Stewart had a solid September (3.68 ERA in eight games), and was the No. 4 overall pick in 2013, so the Twins are greatly invested in his success. Eddie Rosario has been inked because his performance this year matched his hype as a prospect. Still others entered the year as question marks and used this season to solidify their case as part of the team’s future.
Kyle Gibson, 30, is perhaps the most surprising member of that group. Since being drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft, three spots ahead of Mike Trout, high expectations have shadowed Gibson wherever he went. And while he appeared to settle in as a fixture in the rotation after the 2015 season, when he had a 3.84 ERA and pitched 194.2 innings, identical 5.07 ERA seasons the past two years cast his future in doubt.
In July of last year Gibson was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester, where he had already made two starts that year, in order to make room for, ahem, Jaime Garcia. He was recalled on Aug. 5 after Garcia had been laundered and had a 3.55 ERA in his final 11 starts.
“It’s the message you try to establish in Spring Training,” said Molitor when asked about Gibson’s success after being sent down last year. “A lot of times when they get that message of having to return to the minor leagues, everything else kind of falls on deaf ears because it’s a little bit of a shock, especially for a guy that has been around.
“But hopefully they let it sink in that their job is to go and take accountability for why it happened and try to find a way to make themselves better. In Kyle’s case it has worked out as well as we could have hoped.”
Gibson has looked like his 2015 self this year, owning a 3.62 ERA in 196.2 innings pitched while dealing 179 strikeouts — a career high. His previous high of 145 came in 2015.
“It’s been a nine-month baseball run where he has been as good as you could have hoped,” said Molitor. “We’ve always projected Kyle for a long time, he probably got tired of hearing about what he was supposed to be and who he was.
“And there’s been some difference. He’s changed his programs in terms of his conditioning and the way he’s taking care of his arm. I think it has been reflected in the numbers and the performance. As a manager, you want as many guys in the rotation you feel will give you a chance each and every time they take the ball, and Kyle certainly has done that this year.”
His return to form this year has all but secured a spot in the rotation next season. Jose Berrios, who was named to his first All-Star Game this year, and Jake Odorizzi, likely will be penciled in with him. The question going into next year will they pitch to?
When Jason Castro went out with a torn meniscus in mid-May, the Twins lack of depth at catcher could have been exposed. Bobby Wilson, a 35-year-old career journeyman, was his backup. Willians Astudillo has made the final month of the season enjoyable with his see-ball, hit-ball approach at the plate and chubby-man running, but he’s more of a super-utility player.
Mitch Garver seized on the opportunity, however, and should enter Spring Training in competition to be the starting catcher. A .200/.294/.250 May raised some doubts about his ability to hit in the big leagues, but the 2013 ninth-round pick, who started to appear on top prospect lists a few years ago, solidified his roster spot with a .288/.351/.346 June and .316/.418/.579 July while improving defensively.
“I knew he was a worker,” said Molitor. “He was smart enough to try to learn from his experience up here, and he’s done that. He went from not a very productive first couple of months of the season, when he started getting at-bats more consistently to a guy who you look forward to having up there when there’s an opportunity to do some damage.
“I hope that he takes this year as a learning year, a growth year. He put himself in a good position to be a part moving forward.”
Polanco, like Garver, has used the bat to entrench himself on the roster. His arm remains a question at short, but he possesses raw athleticism and is hitting .286/.343/.429 since serving his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve told you guys, I think he can handle a lot of teaching, and he’s open to it,” said Molitor. “He’s a good player, he’s still relatively young, and once he got over trying to prove to everybody that he took accountability for his mistake…he’s settled in pretty well.”
There are other players who have taken advantage of a down year to try and establish themselves in the big leagues. Jake Cave should be in the outfield mix next season, Stewart pitched well as the primary pitcher and could become a starter next year and Tyler Austin has shown power potential.
But all eyes are on Mauer, who could be playing his last games in a Twins uniform.
“He’s going to take some time, that hasn’t changed,” said Molitor when asked about Mauer’s impending decision. “He knows how much I respect him and have enjoyed to this point managing him and just kind of letting him go. I love the fact that he wanted to get out there and play as much as he could this week.”
Whether or not Mauer decides to return has captured everyone’s attention in the final week of the season, but his future with the team is not the only uncertainty with this team as the season comes to the end.
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