When I read comments from Twins fans (don’t read the comments) on Star Tribune stories or Twitter, I sense something strange happening: The Twins are in the midst of a successful season by almost any measure, and they are doing it under new leadership. But there is still a decent segment of the Twins fan base that doesn’t think Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and General Manger Thad Levine are doing a good job — or at least that derisively think of the duo as boy genius know-it-all types.
With the Twins in the midst of a playoff race — before first pitch Wednesday in Yankee Stadium, they were 1.5 games up on the Angels with 11 games remaining and FanGraphs gave the Twins a 63.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason as a Wild Card — this seemed like a good time to attempt an honest assessment of Year 1 of the Falvey/Levine era.
To do this, I’ve divided things into three categories: things I think they got right, things I think they they got wrong and times when they probably just got lucky.
*Stuck with the plan: Before the first pitch of the season was thrown, Falvey and Levine were on record saying they thought the Twins were much better than their 59-103 record indicated last year. That set the course for a season in which there weren’t a ton of huge changes, which enabled the Twins to “trust the process,” so to speak, and give young players chances to get the repetitions they needed to fail (and then get better).
That meant a lot of at bats for Miguel Sano (at his natural position of third base), Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler. It meant innings for Jose Berrios and Adalberto Mejia. That faith has largely been repaid in a win-win scenario: Those players have contributed mightily to the Twins’ success this season while also enhancing the mission of building toward more success in the future.
*Subtle upgrades: Falvey and Levine seemed to prioritize two things in the offseason — upgrading at catcher (including defensively) and adding high-character veterans. Signing Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez enabled them to do both things.
*Resisted the urge to trade the team’s best veterans: When a lot of us were calling for the Twins to trade Brian Dozier and/or Ervin Santana during the offseason (and again at the trade deadline), Falvey and Levine instead kept both guys. Without them, the Twins would have had no chance to compete this season.
*Didn’t invest enough in the bullpen: Bullpen arms aren’t as cheap as they used to be, and the Twins did have some bad luck with injuries. But when your biggest free agent bullpen move is bringing in Matt Belisle (who has been fine), and you’re coming off a year with shaky relief already, you set yourself up for some second-guessing.
*Deadline miscalculation: Falvey and Levine showed good flexibility when shifting from being buyers to sellers at the trade deadline as the Twins seemingly faded. Those who believe in fire and grit might even say dealing away Jaime Garcia and Brandon Kintzler made the Twins play with a chip on their shoulders in August and September, propelling them into playoff position (I’d say it was a schedule that eased up dramatically, but that’s just me). They played the percentages in trading those two guys, and it cost them. It was a bad result more than a bad decision, but I’d sure like the Twins’ chances down the stretch and in the postseason a lot more if they had Kintzler (who has a 2.66 ERA in 21 appearances with Washington, by the way), in particular.
*Hector Santiago: Some questioned the wisdom of giving $8 million to the left-handed starter when cheaper options might have yielded similar or better results. Those questions proved legitimate when Santiago slogged through an ineffective, injury-marred year.
*Bartolo Colon: I had more confidence than most that the 44-year-old had a chance to help the rotation, but this was essentially a low-risk move that worked out better than Falvey or Levine reasonably had a right to expect.
*Everyone got hot at once: The Twins were once 50-54. They’ve gone 28-19 since then, and that’s due in large part to guys like Rosario, Buxton, Dozier, Polanco and Kyle Gibson turning around their seasons at virtually the same time. Again, that was faith rewarded but it happened so dramatically that there was certainly an element of good fortune with it.
*Rookie relievers stepped up: Where would the Twins be right now without Trevor Hildenberger (almost 27) and Alan Busenitz (27), a pair of older rookies who have delivered critical outs during a stretch when there were few other options.
*Everyone else in the playoff chase is struggling: Even if the Twins were 78-73 and trailing the Wild Card race by eight games, this season would be a relative success. But the fact that they’re leading the race for a postseason spot makes it feel more dramatic. Here’s a stat: the Twins have gone 4-6 in their last 10 games, which should have opened the door for someone to overtake them. But their six closest pursuers all went 4-6 or worse in the same span. It took 89 games to claim the second Wild Card spot last season. It might only take 84 or 85 this year, which is a nice break for the new bosses in their first season.
Ultimately, I’d say this has been a strong year for Falvey and Levine. You might not like every decision they make (see: Doug Mientkiewicz), but they have a philosophy and a plan that seems to be aimed in the right direction short-term and long-term.