Last season was basically make or break for Twins manager Paul Molitor. He was in the final year of a three-year contract but was working for Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine for the first time.
Molitor led the Twins to 85 victories and the second American League wild-card spot, finishing above .500 for the second time in three seasons, and was rewarded with a new three-year deal.
Molitor also made a number of changes to his staff and over the past two years added bench coach Derek Shelton, hitting coach James Rowson, pitching coach Garvin Alston, first base coach Jeff Smith and coach Jeff Pickler to his staff.
With a squad of young standout players and some key free-agent signings such as pitchers Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and Fernando Rodney and first baseman/designated hitter Logan Morrison, expectations were extremely high this season.
So far, however, the results have been lackluster. Injuries and suspensions to key players and subpar performances from others in the lineup have led to a slow start and the Twins trailing Cleveland by 8½ games in the AL Central.
Molitor was asked if this has been a difficult season but said he’s more focused on day-to-day operations.
“I don’t think about it in those terms,” he said. “I think everyone realizes that the game, sometimes you’re not going to have some people for various reasons. I think your job is to focus on the people you have available to yourself and try to use them the best that you can. You can take a step back and say it has been a little challenging in the fact that we don’t have some people that we were kind of counting on at the beginning of the year, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Buxton, Sano struggle
The Twins were clearly banking on center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano developing into stars, and their struggles have been among the season’s great disappointments.
Buxton has played 28 of 76 games, hitting .156 with four RBI and eight runs scored. Sano has played in 37 of 76 games, hitting .203 with 27 RBI and seven homers and 66 strikeouts.
“Obviously those two guys have a chance to really impact the team when they’re going well,” Molitor said. “We haven’t seen either of them get on track. Some of [the Twins’ slow start] has been injury-related. [Shortstop Jorge] Polanco, losing him, I thought, was a big blow. [Catcher Jason] Castro being out. [First baseman] Joe [Mauer] was out for a significant amount of time. It challenges you in terms of how deep are you? Who can step in and try to take the place of some of those guys who are down for a while?”
The Twins have the second-easiest schedule the rest of the season, according to Baseball Prospectus. Does Molitor see that as a benefit?
“I don’t know how much stock to put into that,” he said. “I know every time we play, there are major league players on the other side. Hopefully we can take advantage, but mainly it’s how we play, not who we’re playing against. If we play our game, I’ll match up against anybody.”
Does he still envision this team making a run?
“We have to put together some kind of run at some point, and I’m not talking about a winning streak per se,” he said. “Put together a good two- to three-week stretch where we can creep our way back to .500 and then build on that.”
Thibs mum on Butler
After the Wolves introduced their draft picks — Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie and Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop — to the media Tuesday, president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau was asked how difficult it will be to produce contract extensions for guard Jimmy Butler and center Karl-Anthony Towns when the team is already $15 million over the salary cap for the 2018-19 season.
Thibodeau didn’t directly answer whether the Wolves will be able to keep Butler but said retaining top players is a struggle for every competitive team.
“That’s sort of the way the NBA is going, every team is faced with the same challenges,” he said. “So it’s to make sure you’re doing everything you can to make it appealing for your players so that they want to play here. But we like what we have going. We think the future is very bright.
“We have three guys in Karl, Andrew [Wiggins] and Tyus [Jones] that are young and will get a lot better, and then we have a good blend. We have Jimmy going into his prime, we have Jeff [Teague] and Taj [Gibson], who have great experience and have been terrific players in the league for a long time. Belly [Nemanja Bjelica] has played well for us and continues to get better and better. We’re hopeful we can re-sign Derrick [Rose]. We’re hopeful for our team.”
The Wolves have nine players signed for $113 million for next season. The salary cap is projected to be $101 million, with the luxury tax threshold at $123 million — and that’s before factoring in trying to keep Rose and match any offer Bjelica receives.
Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden will have to be creative this summer to keep this team intact.
• The Vikings’ new contract for Danielle Hunter, for at least $72 million over five years, won’t kick in until next season, but they have the fifth-highest defensive payroll in the NFL at $93.6 million, trailing the Jaguars, Buccaneers, Panthers and Titans.
• The Vikings commissioned Nielsen Scarborough to do a survey of 2,500 residents of the Twin Cities on their sports habits. The results indicated 2.36 million people either watched, listened to or attended a Vikings game last season, compared to 2.07 million for the Twins, 1.36 million for the Wild and 882,000 for the Timberwolves. The survey also asked participants to name their favorite team. The Vikings received 30 percent of the vote, the Twins 15, the Wild 9 and the Wolves 5.
• Former Gophers quarterback Chris Streveler is the talk of the Canadian Football League. He is starting as a rookie for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and on Friday he completed 22 of 28 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-10 victory over the Montreal Alouettes. He also rushed for 98 yards and a score. Two of his passing touchdowns went to former Gophers teammate Drew Wolitarsky, who has five receptions for 66 yards and three scores this season.