FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s 75 and sunny in Southwest Florida, where the Minnesota Twins’ position players have joined the pitchers and catchers and are now preparing for a run to the World Series. Yes, Rocco Baldelli has said those words, and there is reason to believe that they can repeat their regular-season success from last year and build off of it in 2020. But the next step means a playoff run, one that likely goes through New York.
The Yankees are two hours up I-75 in Tampa, and the two teams will only play two series in the regular season, but the Bombers will loom over the Bombas until Minnesota’s playoff streak against them is broken. It’s inevitable because the losing streak is a tie back to the Twins’ previous run of success from 2002-10. If this version of the Twins does not overcome that roadblock, their new analytically-infused, aggressive approach will not fully be appreciated.
It’s easy to forget about all that here, where the temperature is so perfect you hardly notice it, the wind blows gracefully through the palm trees and there is no game to worry about tomorrow. It’s still winter, and October is a long way away. A lot will happen between then and now.
Individual players may be worried about roster spots or their future in the organization right now, but by and large, the roster is set going into Opening Day and many of the players here are top prospects who are on the rise — Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Jorge Alcala, etc. Many who are here and won’t make the roster are just a call away.
The notion that this team can be a contender isn’t just internal. Reporters from USA Today and MLB.com are here. ESPN will likely pass through. The big stories are in Houston with the sign-stealing scandal, Los Angeles and Boston because of the Mookie Betts trade, and New York because the Yankees are always relevant. But people have taken notice of what’s going on here, even if this is just a pit stop along the way to 1 Steinbrenner Drive.
And while this is a welcome change from the doldrums of the post-2010 Ron Gardenhire Twins, or the up-and-down Paul Molitor-led version, it comes with turbulence. Homegrown players like Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios and Max Kepler will be expected to improve as they enter their prime. Josh Donaldson has a big contract to live up to, and Homer Bailey, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda have to shore up the starting rotation. Baldelli’s laid back approach will be questioned if this team underperforms this season.
The Twins front office correctly identified an opportunity right now. The Cleveland Indians ownership appears ready to undergo a rebuild if they struggle this year and have already moved key pieces off the roster. The Chicago White Sox look poised to capitalize on their deep farm system, ample financial resources and the clout of playing in a large city, but probably need a year to go from 72 wins to 90-plus.
If there’s reason to believe that the Baldelli Twins will overcome the demons of the Gardenhire version, it’s that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are displaying a sense of urgency typically reserved for big-market, deep-pocketed and highly scrutinized teams. Trading Brusdar Graterol is an aggressive move. So was signing Donaldson.
But most of Baldelli’s methods will be calming. He wants his players to get enough sleep to be focused on game day. He doesn’t want them to fret over a small losing streak. He wants them to establish a routine to help maintain their health throughout the season. While the front office expresses urgency, he seeks serenity.
It’s cold back home. Winter storms create chaos: spinouts, crashes and traffic jams. But here the players go through their day like they’re preparing to play on a summer night. Pitchers warm up their arms with long toss in left field. Hitters are in the cages refining their swing. Young prospects pick the minds of star veterans like Donaldson, Hill and Nelson Cruz.
The front office has created urgency and raised outside expectations with their aggressiveness. The coaching staff and older players aspire to create a sense of calm in the locker room. At times when things become difficult — a losing streak, star players get hurt, a potential playoff matchup against the Yankees or another contender in the fall — this is the foundation they can call back upon.