In college sports, there is a common understanding that it takes four years for fans to evaluate how well a new coach is doing. By then, they have a roster full of players they recruited and aren’t benefitting from their predecessor’s work. It’s kind of a similar dynamic for MLB front offices.
For example, the University of Minnesota hired former basketball coach Richard Pitino in 2013, and he went 23-13 and won the NIT. Great start, right? Well, Tubby Smith recruited many of the players Pitino was coaching, and Pitino’s Gophers didn’t make the postseason in the next two seasons.
However, the Gophers went 24-10 in 2016-17. They had a winning record in the Big Ten and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Pitino. Coincidence? Not really. It was Pitino’s fourth year on the job. He was coaching his own guys.
Major League Baseball isn’t college basketball. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine work in the front office; they don’t coach the team. They’re also not flying around the country recruiting teenage athletes. There’s a draft, trades, and free agency. But any baseball front office works on a longer timeline than any other professional sport. It takes years for the best prospects to develop, let alone the peripheral players who are crucial to a baseball team’s success.
Former Minnesota Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas cleaned house in his first year, trading away most of the team. Bill Guerin bought out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, two $98 million players, and will likely move on from star players he didn’t draft or trade for. More legacy players will go this offseason because of the cap squeeze from the Parise and Suter buyouts. New Minnesota Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell were criticized for extending the previous regime’s players. Most new football front offices just blow it up.
Rebuilding is subtle and excruciating in baseball. There is little incentive to tank because the MLB draft is more variable, and players take years to develop. Management needs to be patient with prospects, load up on an excess of shortstops and pitchers, and hope that their army of coaches and development people is aligned from Rookie Ball to Triple-A. In turn, ownership needs to be patient with management to produce a winner.
Falvey and Levine inherited Paul Molitor, a local legend who had led the Twins to an 83-79 record in 2015 – Minnesota’s first winning season since Target Field opened in 2010. The Pohlads fired longtime GM Terry Ryan after the “total system failure” season in 2016. However, they insisted that Molitor was not at fault and that the new front office would retain him.
Therefore, Falvey and Levine could only take so much credit when the Twins went 85-77 and made the AL Wild Card game in 2017. Ryan had hired Molitor and built out most of the roster. Falvey and Levine’s most memorable move(s) was laundering Jaime Garcia. After one start, they traded Huascar Ynoa to the Atlanta Braves for Garcia, only to deal him to the New York Yankees for Zack Littell.
Minnesota’s 85-win season in 2017 became a mixed blessing for Falvey and Levine. Molitor won manager of the year and leveraged it to get a three-year contract extension. Despite being older than Ron Gardenhire when the Twins hired him, Molitor was a more progressive baseball mind. Still, he ostensibly wasn’t quite as new-age as Falvey and Levine envisioned their manager to be when they took over.
Falvey and Levine boldly fired after a 78-84 season in 2018 and replaced him with Rocco Baldelli. Nurtured in the progressive, parsimonious Tampa Bay Rays organization, Baldelli is the kind of manager they envisioned. Baptized in analytics, but also able to connect with players personally. He was also willing to collaborate with Falvey and Levine to fill out the lineup and on roster moves.
Baldelli was more like a partner rather than a traditional manager. An extension of the front office in the clubhouse.
You could call the Bomba Squad Falvey and Levine’s first team. Had they been a college coach, it would have been. They had been on the job for four years and won 101 games a year after hiring Baldelli. But the roster wasn’t entirely theirs yet. Terry Ryan drafted Joe Mauer and Byron Buxton. Bill Smith signed Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler as international free agents and drafted Eddie Rosario.
The 2021 Twins are Falvey and Levine’s team, though. They traded for Joe Ryan and Jhoan Duran, and they uncovered Bailey Ober in the 12th round of the 2017 draft. They signed Carlos Correa to an unorthodox deal and filled out the rest of the pitching staff in the offseason. Jose Miranda is their guy. So are Trevor Larnach and Alex Kirilloff. Buxton, Polanco, and Kepler are all holdovers from a previous regime, but Falvey and Levine chose to extend them.
The pandemic season in 2020 may have delayed many of these prospects’ arrival by a year. MLB canceled the affiliated minor league seasons, significantly affecting player development. Furthermore, Falvey and Levine’s first-ever draft choice, Royce Lewis (1st overall, 2017), didn’t play in 2020 and injured himself, missing all of last season, too. He made his big-league debut on Friday.
Falvey and Levine’s honeymoon had worn off at the beginning of the year. Ynoa had been pitching well in Atlanta, and it looked like they gave up too early on Littell. The Josh Donaldson contract didn’t work out, and Dylan Bundy was the only starter they had signed before the lockout.
The Twins were coming off a 73-89 season and had just traded their best pitcher, José Berríos. 2022 was a crucial year for Falvey and Levine. But many of their big prospects have arrived and are performing well. Minnesota’s seven-game win streak earlier this year is the longest since Falvey and Levine took over. A team that FanGraphs and Vegas Insider had projected to finish .500 is now in command of the AL Central.
It’s early, and a lot can change. But this feels like the early 2000s when Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, and Doug Mientkiewicz turned a club that could have been contracted into a winner. Except Falvey and Levine have chosen to extend their homegrown superstar, Buxton, and brought in a world-class player, Correa, to supplement the team. They are trying to reach heights the Twins never did in the 200s. They’re trying to build a contender, and they had to make it their team to do so.