Rocco Baldelli potentially has his most challenging task as manager before him in 2022. Baldelli is entering his fourth season with the Minnesota Twins and has had success for most of his time in Minnesota. The 40-year-old has a 210-174 record, won back-to-back AL Central Division titles, and earned a Manager of the Year award.
As the original date for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training has passed without a resolution in baseball’s ongoing labor dispute, coaching staffs are still preparing for some semblance of a season at their facilities. When the rest of the players arrive in Fort Myers, this team will look different from Baldelli’s first few seasons as manager.
With the challenge in front of him, there are some ways Baldelli can help guide this team to success once the season officially begins.
Baldelli came to Minnesota after the 2018 season following Minnesota’s dismissal of Paul Molitor after four seasons with the club. Molitor was relieved of his duties primarily because he was the incumbent when Minnesota hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Molitor had success as a manager. But Baldelli was young, calm under pressure, and fully embraced a more modern approach.
That approach fully brought the Twins into the modern era under Falvey and Levine and led to instant success in 2019. Along with significant steps forward from young stars including Miguel Sanó and Jorge Polanco, the team won over 100 games in Baldelli’s first season. Minnesota followed it up in 2020 by winning the AL Central again, going 36-24 behind one of the league’s best pitching staffs. Baldelli’s hands-off approach with his team seemed to hold things together during turbulent points in the season. He rarely screamed at an umpire or threw down a Gatorade cooler. But no matter if they were winning or losing, the Twins knew they were getting the same manager every day they came to the ballpark.
However, the biggest knock on Baldelli in his first two seasons was he couldn’t break Minnesota’s playoff drought. Then the success the Twins enjoyed came to a halt in 2021 when lousy roster management decisions and regression from key players dumped Minnesota into last place in the division. The team came under scrutiny for miscues and questionable pitching decisions, but fans placed most of the blame on the manager. After two strong seasons, the “honeymoon phase” for Baldelli ended.
On top of that, the Twins traded Nelson Cruz to the Tampa Bay Rays at the deadline. The longtime veteran thrived in his nearly three seasons in Minnesota, slashing .304/.386/.598 and smashing 76 home runs. Outside of his production, Cruz’s leadership style dovetailed with Baldelli’s laid-back culture. The Twins emphasized concepts like relaxation. Cruz was notorious for taking naps, and Baldelli told younger players not to arrive at the ballpark early.
The leadership from Baldelli and Cruz helped guide young players like Sano, Polanco, and Byron Buxton develop at their own pace and not get discouraged through their rough stretches. Now there is a new wave of young players breaking into the majors. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach already have had major-league at-bats, and Royce Lewis and Austin Martin look poised to slot in behind them.
The Twins drafted Kirilloff and Larnach in the first round of the 2016 and 2018 drafts, respectively. And they’ve had some ups and downs early in their careers. Before a wrist injury kept him sidelined, Kirilloff slashed .251/.299/.423 with eight home runs in 59 games in his first season. Larnach slashed .223/.322/.350 with seven home runs in 79 games until he was sent down midway through last season.
Both are players the Twins front office will want to build around for the next playoff window. Baldelli has a calming influence that will help the young guys continue to develop, but he can also relate to being a player trying to break into the majors.
Baldelli was drafted sixth-overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2000. He finished his career slashing .278/.323/.443 in 519 games before retiring during the 2010 season due to mitochondrial channelopathy, a rare cell disorder that causes severe muscle fatigue. Baldelli has the ability and experience to relate to the struggles these former top picks are going through as they establish themselves in the bigs.
Another issue with the 2022 Twins is the complete overhaul of the pitching staff that ranked 26th in baseball with a 4.83 team ERA last season. Last year, Baldelli seemed to be scrutinized most for his pitching change decisions. However, it felt like he pushed all of the right buttons the season before when the Twins had a 3.58 ERA.
A good portion of this criticism could be placed on the front office for bringing in Alexander Colomé and Hansel Robles as high-leverage relievers. However, he still has quality bullpen options in Jorge Alcala and Taylor Rogers and several young arms in the bullpen. Pitching coach Wes Johnson has played a vital role in maximizing Minnesota’s pitching talent, especially with pitchers like Alcala and Caleb Thielbar. Therefore, Baldelli needs to lean on his development staff more in 2022 and ride the hot hand if the veteran options struggle.
Due to some deficiencies on the pitching staff and younger players in the lineup, this team still has plenty to prove after a last-place finish in 2021. Expectations feel similar to what they were before Baldelli’s first season in 2019, when the team came off a disappointing season only to surpass expectations and rebound in a big way. That starts with coming on strong at the beginning of the season.
In 2019, the Twins started 17-9 through the first month and went 20-10 during the opening stretch in 2020. Last year, the Twins went 11-19 to begin the season and never recovered. There are still plenty of veteran options, including Polanco, Josh Donaldson, and Buxton to help Baldelli lead the way and start the season strong in 2022.
In today’s Major League Baseball, managers don’t have their biggest influence on in-game strategy. However, they still have an impact. Baldelli may be different from his predecessors: Molitor, Ron Gardenhire, and Tom Kelly. But his best qualities might be the right thing for a young, up-and-coming Twins team that needs a steady hand.