Optimism is the byproduct of anticipation, especially during springtime baseball, and Paul Molitor, like every manager preparing to open training camp, freely admits he has been infected. While most Twins fans regard the 2016 season, worst in franchise history, as wreckage to be carted away or bulldozed over, the manager is able to discern a skeletal foundation for success, still intact under the debris.
Like his new bosses, Molitor insists that the Twins possess far more talent than their 59-103 crack-up would suggest. Yet as he makes his case for a bounce-back season, he is nagged by the parallel logic such a narrative infers.
“Everyone tells me they look at our roster and don’t see a 103-loss team,” Molitor said wryly last week, shortly after shipping his bags off to Fort Myers. “Well, that doesn’t really reflect very well on the manager.”
He laughed at the irony, but acknowledged it’s not an original thought. Critiques of Molitor’s leadership have become ubiquitous in the wake of 103 losses, adding to the awkwardness of his perch.
Molitor, at 60 the oldest manager the Twins have ever had, will open his third spring training camp Tuesday, welcoming a roster that’s undergone only modest modification, working for a front office that didn’t hire him and an owner who has publicly granted immunity only for this season. There are new initiatives to incorporate, new coaches to assimilate, new players to evaluate — and a nagging ambiguity about whether his new bosses intend to try to compete in 2017, or rebuild.
“I think they see it more as a buildup,” Molitor said of new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine. “I told them, my concern is 2017, with an eye on the future. They maybe have the future in mind, with how this year can help us get there. I understand the difference.”
He also understands the pressure he’s under, either way. If the Twins convince themselves during spring training that they can return to respectability immediately, Molitor will be expected to usher the team’s young roster from adolescent potential to adult production. If they decide to sacrifice short-term assets for long-term promise — trading Brian Dozier, for example, or Ervin Santana — he will be left to wring whatever victories he can from a depleted roster.
“Whatever happens, I’m going to try to stay in the present with the roster I have. If [the front office] gets put in a spot where they have to look ahead, [for instance] if things go bad early, that’s just the reality,” Molitor said. “But I suspect our purposes will be pretty well aligned, for the most part.”
So do Falvey and Levine, albeit before a pitch has been thrown. The new leaders have engaged Molitor in their planning and decision-making all winter, and Falvey said last month that he regards the manager he inherited as “a true partner in this process. … The exchange of ideas has been extremely productive. We want to provide Paul with the tools to succeed, and he’s been open and excited about the potential to run with them.”
Still, perhaps the biggest impact new executives can make on a franchise is in choosing a manager to implement their ideas. Falvey and Levine were denied that opportunity, at least for this season, by owner Jim Pohlad when they were hired, and the owner hasn’t wavered in his esteem for Molitor.
“A lot of things happened [in 2017] that were out of [the manager’s] control,” Pohlad reiterated a month ago. “He didn’t suddenly become a bad manager.”
It’s only natural for administrators to want to appoint their own employees, Molitor acknowledged. But “I’ve felt very compatible with them. I think it’s going very well. Communication has been consistent,” he said. “Maybe you call it an awkward spot for me, but it’s gone about as well as it possibly could.”
Molitor never considered resigning after the 2016 season, though he admits that summer of failure “is personal to me. I will always have to wear that record. But to walk away from that, it wasn’t in me.”
He was prepared in case Pohlad changed his mind about his job security, “but when the end of the season came around and it was made clear I was going to be a part of the equation this year, that was good for me. I want to do that. I want this challenge, and I meant it.”
Change came to his coaching staff, though, a compromise that the manager regrets, but understands. He made a case to keep his staff intact, but Falvey fired coaches Butch Davis and Tom Brunansky.
“When you lose 103 games, there’s a lot of blame to spread,” Molitor said. “It was hard for me, because it made it look like we’re scapegoating a couple of people here, people I consider friends and who I really respect.”
He respects his players, too, and sounds a little surprised that nearly all of them will be back in Twins camp this week. Falvey and Levine signed a new catcher in Jason Castro, and a middle reliever in righthander Matt Belisle, helpful moves but hardly splashy, tear-it-all-down transactions.
“I don’t know if that was a planned strategy from the beginning,” Molitor said, “but I think those [executives] share our confidence that our young guys are going to be what we thought they would. [Miguel] Sano, [Byron] Buxton, we look at their skill set — it should play here. But how it’s going to unfold, you just never know. That’s the difficult part of this.”
A winning season would erase many of those difficulties, and Molitor honestly believes it’s within reach. He’s got more options for patching up the Twins’ league-worst pitching staff, and “I have a lot of confidence that in how our team is going to perform offensively. We have the raw materials here for a really high-performing offense.”
The numbers, however, say even approaching .500 is about as likely as Sano hitting an inside-the-park home run: technically possible, but hardly bankable. Since two-league baseball began in 1901, major league teams have suffered through 100-loss seasons 143 times. Only 11 bounced back to post a winning record the following year, most recently the 1989 Orioles, and none reached the postseason.
But hey, Molitor relishes a challenge.
He also relishes managing the Twins, even during a 103-loss season, even when it means watching mistake-prone kids, even when it comes with the uncertainty of a change upstairs. Molitor was criticized in many quarters, he knows, for appearing passive in the face of disaster, for remaining calm when some thought turbulence was more appropriate.
That won’t change.
“I don’t want to be who I’m not. When effort is not the problem, it’s hard to kick over things when young players make mistakes,” he said. “We’ve discussed how things might be a little different in [the clubhouse]. I know I have to be true to myself.”
So don’t interpret his stoicism as detachment. He’s actually having … fun?
“It’s like when I played — I didn’t ever look like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t Torii or Kirby or Joe Carter. My enjoyment came from the challenge of competing every day, and it was internal, for the most part. That still remains,” Molitor said. “I’m giving everything I can to get our team back on track. I’m not managing for my job, I’m trying to win more games and have some fun doing it. To have Minnesota baseball fans not be embarrassed about their major league team.”