The Twins’ 2-0 Opening Day victory over Cleveland at Target Field couldn’t have gone any better for Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the team’s chief baseball officer and general manager.
Jose Berrios threw one of the best games of his career, allowing two hits and one walk while striking out 10 over 7⅔ innings, and Taylor Rogers picked up a four-out save, including three strikeouts, in as good a pitching performance as the Twins’ bosses could have imagined.
On top of that, new arrivals Marwin Gonzalez, C.J. Cron and Nelson Cruz supplied all the Twins’ runs in the bottom of the seventh on singles by Cruz and Cron and a two-run double by Gonzalez — three of the team’s four hits in the game.
Yes, this figures to be a pressure-filled season for Falvey and Levine as they enter their third year in complete control of baseball operations. Since they took over the Twins, they have reworked the roster and the front office in several ways, none bigger than their decision to remove Paul Molitor and put Rocco Baldelli in charge this season, his first as a big-league manager.
One of the biggest reasons they might be under more pressure is because they have been given total freedom to revamp the franchise by owner Jim Pohlad and President Dave St. Peter.
Falvey and Levine have invested millions of dollars to improve technology and scouting services behind the scenes, and have brought in several staff members more focused on analytics than previous regimes. Pohlad told me during the offseason that he is open to all the changes the front office is making.
“They’ve contributed a lot,” Pohlad said. “… There is more emphasis on process and analytics and all of that than there was before. And the staffing level in the baseball department is way higher than it was before also. It has changed.”
Their own people
On top of that, Falvey and Levine have overseen a big rebuild of the coaching staff.
In addition to Molitor being replaced, the Twins also let go of pitching coach Garvin Alston, bullpen coach Eddie Guardado, first base coach Jeff Smith, third base coach Gene Glynn and major league coach Jeff Pickler.
Another big move they made was bringing in Daniel Adler to be director of baseball operations. Adler had previously worked with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars as director of football research from 2012-14 and in MLB’s labor relations department in 2011.
To replace Alston they brought in Wes Johnson, the first pitching coach in major league history to come straight from college coaching. They’re hoping Johnson can do for their pitching staff — which has consistently ranked among the worst in the American League over the past decade — what hitting coach James Rowson has done for the offense since they hired him in 2017. The Twins finished fourth in the American League in runs scored in 2017 and sixth in 2018.
They also added assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, first base coach Tommy Watkins, third base coach Tony Diaz and major league coach Bill Evers.
Turned roster over
After two offseasons, Falvey and Levine also have retooled much of the roster.
The Twins infield has been remodeled completely after they traded away Eduardo Escobar and Brian Dozier last season. They claimed Cron, who started at first base Thursday, off waivers in November. They signed free-agent second baseman Jonathan Schoop in December. They added Gonzalez, who started at third base in place of injured Miguel Sano, as a free agent in February. And they signed free agent Nelson Cruz to be their designated hitter in January.
They spent $48.6 million on free agents this offseason, including for Cruz (one year, $14.3 million), Gonzalez (two years, $21 million) and Schoop (one year, $7.5 million).
They didn’t make any big moves to change the pitching staff, but they did bring in lefthanded starter Martin Perez (one year, $4 million) and reliever Blake Parker (one year, $1.8 million). On top of that, they signed righthanded starter Michael Pineda last year to a two-year, $10 million deal, even though they knew he wouldn’t play last season as he recovered after Tommy John surgery.
Falvey and Levine have given out over $98 million in free-agent contracts the past two seasons. Still, this season will be the first where it really feels as if they are in complete control. They have their own baseball operations staff, their own coaches and a roster they have had two offseasons to build.
And for Twins ownership, who have watched the club struggle to draw fans, they have to hope Falvey and Levine really get it right in 2019. They couldn’t have hoped for a better start than Thursday’s shutout in front of a sold-out crowd.
Vikings target RFAs
Last season the Vikings had 21 players on their roster who started their NFL careers as rookie free agents.
They contributed 65 starts, and eight players — wide receivers Adam Thielen and Brandon Zylstra, right guard Mike Remmers, linebacker Eric Wilson, punter Matt Wile, long snapper Kevin McDermott, offensive tackle Rashod Hill and cornerback Holton Hill — appeared in all 16 games. Safety Anthony Harris and running back C.J. Ham appeared in 15 games.
General Manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings’ approach to rookie free agency and the draft has recently changed.
“We started having a philosophy about three years ago of trying to hone in [on rookie free agency],” he said. “You can get great value with college free agents and it helps save from a financial standpoint on how they fit into your roster and your cap planning. We found Holton Hill last year. C.J. Ham, Adam Thielen … Eric Wilson came in when Anthony Barr was hurt and played well.
“We’re going to really focus and hone in on that. I think our analytics have really helped us in that area, led by [analytics and pro scout director] Scott Kuhn, identifying some of these college free agents that have a legit shot to make a roster. Instead of looking through 700 names, I think by what we’re doing in that phase, that hones into maybe 10 or 11 guys that we take another look at, study as a group. In fact, when we get our top 30 [draft prospects] here, you’ll see probably a third of them that are college free agents.”