Paul Molitor remembers all too well how the Minnesota Twins’ 2016 started. After a surprising 2015 campaign, his first as a big league manager, the Twins took a nosedive and started the next year with nine straight losses on their way to a 59-win season.
While Minnesota surprised everyone by winning 83 games in Molitor’s first year at the helm, they not only returned to their losing ways immediately, but their 103 losses in 2016 was more than any of the four straight losing seasons that proceeded it from 2011-14. The honeymoon was over, even for a St. Paul native with 3,000 hits in his career.
Last year he and the Twins had to prove that 2015 wasn’t an outlier. And by leading Minnesota to an 85-win season and its first playoff berth since Target Field opened in 2010, he did.
This year’s team returned to Minneapolis with a 3-2 record after a road trip that took them to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Twins lost in both the Orioles’ and the Pirates’ home openers, but were competitive in each game. Lance Lynn gave up a grand slam in the first inning of his start in the Steel City, but Jake Odorizzi, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson all had good starts — an indication that the rotation is improved from last season.
“So far we’re pleased,” said Molitor at an Opening Day press conference “Obviously we saw a couple of years ago what can happen, you can get buried early.”
A few storylines are already forming early in the season. Jorge Polanco received an 80-game suspension and cannot play in the playoffs this year because stanozolol was found in his system during a drug test. Fernando Rodney, Logan Morrison and Lynn were all brought in as impact free agents, changing the locker room dynamics in some capacity.
And damn, it’s cold out there.
“Everyone understands that not just Minnesota, but there’s a lot of places that are having trouble having spring jumpstarted,” said Molitor, referring to the winter-like temperatures on the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. “If anything, you just plant little seeds about the mindset that it takes, and that everyone has to find a way to go out there and perform to the best of your abilities.
“I used to think about, maybe there’s some guys on the other team that didn’t want to be out there,” he added, “and if somehow you can use it to your advantage, there might be an edge to be gained.”
Unlike Molitor and Mauer, most American baseball players come from the Sun Belt — California, Florida, Texas or Georgia. Many of them are wearing long sleeves, have headwear that make them look like Scorpion from Mortal Kombat and are loading up on…Vasoline?
Brian Dozier, who calls Mississippi home, seems unconcerned about the weather:
And the general consensus coming out of the locker room is that a lot of baseball is about mindset, so the cold is just an early test.
“My first two high school baseball games my junior and senior year got snowed out,” said Mauer, who sat next to his fellow Cretin-Derham Hall alum during the Opening Day press conference. “The coldest game I’ve ever been a part of was when I was in Low-A ball, in Quad Cities, our second night we had a night game, and we went 17 innings. We got off the field, and it was 26 degrees. I definitely remember that night.
“That’s kinda what we’re looking at right now. But like Moli (Molitor) said, they gotta go out and do it too. It’s more of a mindset now too, just to go out there and play the game.”
The bigger issue with the cold is that it could cause injury, especially for pitchers.
“I don’t think we really know exactly where the risk gets high, or too high, to try and play in the cold temperatures,” said Molitor. “I know that guys that played last night…it’s a different kind of soreness that they feel today, from getting through, and probably a lot of it had to do with the cold conditions.
“It’s just hard to keep your body warm in between times when you’re not staying active. And Jake [Odorizzi] ended up right around probably close to 90 pitches last night, which isn’t a huge workload for him. But I think he feels differently today than he would after a start in better conditions, so you’re careful.”
As for losing Polanco, Molitor feels like the Twins have enough depth to make up for his absence. Eduardo Escobar will likely replace him at short for most of his suspension, and Ehire Adrianza is capable of spelling him when he needs a day off.
“Polanco’s a really good player, and we all saw what he was capable of as last year unfolded,” said Molitor. “But we’re fortunate to have the protection that we have at the position — both Escobar and Adrianza. Escobar is getting more playing time so far, and he’s done fine. We haven’t had any miscues at the position, I think we’re handling it well so far.”
And while the Twins didn’t undergo a major overhaul in the offseason, players like Rodney, Morrison and Lynn have changed the dynamics of the locker room. Rodney is the closer to start the year and has a corner locker, along with Mauer, Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana. Morrison hit 38 home runs last year. And Lynn is a starter who came up with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 — the year they won the World Series.
“So far, so good,” said Mauer when asked about clubhouse chemistry. “Spring Training is a time where every year you get a new group of guys coming in, and players that we’ve added have definitely helped us on the field, but they’re great guys too in the clubhouse.
“We’ve had a couple team functions so far in Spring Training, and even on that first road trip. The pieces that we’ve added have filled in really nicely. Guys are coming together, and I’m excited about this group.”
In order to take the next step this year, which would mean capitalizing on a weak division (the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are all rebuilding), the team’s young players will have to improve upon their 2017. The Twins’ fate rests in the continued development of Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Berrios — all of whom are in their early 20s.
“As far as progression, you just hope that they keep the hunger of not only winning, but learning how to make themselves better,” said Molitor.
“It’s nice when you start to get to a point where you don’t have to be looking over your shoulder too much about a bad week, and am I gonna get sent down, and you can start to just focus on being here and being a team player and hopefully trying to find a way to help your team get to the postseason.”
There’s an old line in baseball that a team cannot make the playoffs in April — but they can eliminate themselves. The Twins effectively did that in 2016. But they haven’t done that to themselves this season, at least they didn’t on their opening roadtrip, and for a team that is relying on help from free agents new to the team and young players that, generally speaking, can be volatile, that’s something to be pleased about.