FORT MYERS, FLA. – Rocco Baldelli walked through the Twins clubhouse at Hammond Stadium during the first week of spring training and spotted outfielder Byron Buxton.
It was 8:30 a.m.
“What are you doing here?” Baldelli asked.
“I’m about to get in a little workout,” Buxton replied.
Said the first-time manager: “Get your sleep.”
Buxton told the story a few weeks later, his eyebrows raising to show how pleasantly surprised he was by his boss’ orders to sleep in.
“I was like, ‘Cool,’ ” Buxton said. “OK then.”
As spring training unfolded, Twins players realized Baldelli was a different man with a different plan. He has nontraditional ways to put his charges in the best position to thrive, part of the reason he was hired to help this particular team close the gap on the Indians in the American League Central.
There was no more early work at 7:30 a.m.
Catchers took batting practice first instead of last, so their legs would not be on fire after numerous drills.
Biomechanics experts broke down the form of hitters and pitchers.
There was no standing on the field while waiting to take turns in drills. Players finished, got back into the clubhouse and viewed video.
Sweatshirts? T-shirts? Both? Baldelli didn’t care. Whatever was comfortable, whenever they reported for the job.
A comfortable player is a happy player, and a happy player is a productive player. The regimen of spring training was replaced with rest and recovery. Blend that with the 37-year-old Baldelli sounding wise beyond his years, and the implementation of cutting-edge technology, and the players found a spring training they were definitely unaccustomed to.
“This is one of the best atmospheres I’ve been a part of,” said Nelson Cruz, a power-hitting designated hitter entering his 15th major league season with his fifth team.
Easing the grind
The regular season begins Thursday at Target Field, and Baldelli promised many days in which players won’t be required to report to the ballpark until two hours before a night game — especially during the second half of the season, when the long grind can make all ballparks start looking the same.
Combine the new approach with the talent on the roster — Cruz, for example — and it has the clubhouse hoping a reversal of a 78-84 record last season, which ended with the dismissal of manager Paul Molitor, is doable.
Star Tribune staff writers make Twins predictions for 2019
The general opinion of the Star Tribune columnists and beat writers is that the Twins will be a winning team, but not winning enough to catch Cleveland for the American League Central title.
- 90-72SID HARTMAN
A lot of the Twins’ success depends on getting third baseman Miguel Sano healthy and also if Byron Buxton keeps up what he has done in spring training. The other big question is how all of the free-agent additions to the roster will fit together. The Tigers, Royals and White Sox won’t be any better than they were last year, and Cleveland has lost a lot of talent.
- 88-74JIM SOUHAN
Byron Buxton breaks out, Miguel Sano belatedly breaks out, Martin Perez becomes a key starter, Fernando Romero becomes a key reliever, and the Twins duel with Cleveland for the division title. The key to the season may be finding a surefire closer — or proving you don’t need one.
- 85-77CHIP SCOGGINS
The lineup looks solid — assuming Miguel Sano can stay healthy when he returns and Byron Buxton shows that can he can hit big-league pitching consistently. Those remain ifs. So does the starting rotation. And we don’t know if the club will respond to a first-year manager. Potential remains the buzzword until seeing more.
- 85-77La VELLE E. NEAL III
Michael Pineda and Martin Perez will deepen the rotation. The lineup is missing prototypical table-setters but has grind-it-out hitters in Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco who will do enough in front of the power hitters. The Twins will need to deal for a reliever, but the gap between them and Cleveland is closing.
- 85-77PATRICK REUSSE
2016 Twins: coming off above-.500 season, good spring training. Optimism becomes franchise-worst record (59-103). 2018 Twins: Coming off playoff season, with veteran reinforcements. Optimism becomes summer of noncontention (78-84). Thus, 2019 Twins: Low on-base lineup, three-fifths of rotation questionable, no closer in piecemeal bullpen. Faced with such pessimism, Twins figure to stay in sight of Cleveland in putrid AL Central.
- 83-79PHIL MILLER
They’re gambling their season on a rotation with no sure things behind Jose Berrios, on significant bullpen improvement from within, and on a lineup that will often be explosive but, without OBP specialists, slump-prone, too. Can they go 3-for-3? Their secret weapon: 76 games against an AL Central that’s seemingly playing for 2022.
“I just believe that right here, on the outset, this will be a very good team,” said catcher Jason Castro, who missed the majority of last season after knee surgery.
Baldelli’s bench coach, Derek Shelton, was in the mix for the managerial jobs with both the Twins and Rangers. The two combined for a spring training plan that produced the results they had envisioned.
“Expectations are laid out, but expectations aren’t rules,” Baldelli said. “Expectations are, ‘How are we going to live? How are we going to be? How are we going to show up every day when we show up to the field and what do we want from our guys?’
“All we really need is to play the game with passion, and to care and compete when they’re out on the field, and to respect the people around them. I’ve gotten nothing but those things from all of them. That’s why I can sit here and be as happy as I am with how camp has gone.”
Baldelli telegraphed his intentions in December in Las Vegas at baseball’s winter meetings when he was asked for his vision.
“We’re going to get our best when these guys are freed up in every possible way — on the field, off the field,” he said. “You have discipline, you do things the right way, you get your work in. But when you are out there, you find ways to have a good time with the people you’re with.”
He met or spoke with as many players as he could before camp opened. He visited the two Twins most important to the future, going to Atlanta to see Buxton and then to the Dominican Republic to check on Miguel Sano, both of whom are coming off injury-plagued and underachieving seasons.
Players noticed the same outstretched hand at spring training.
“He’s a great person, first of all,” righthander Jose Berrios said. “So he listens to us. That doesn’t mean we are always going to agree, but we end up usually on the same page. So it’s good communication. It’s really important that his door is always open.”
Baldelli’s playing career was cut short in 2010 when he retired at age 29 because of a muscle disorder that leads to fatigue and injuries. He became a baseball operations assistant with the Rays, then later joined the coaching staff. He’s mentally agile, able to deal with players only a handful of years younger than him, and understands the big picture coaches need to be aware of while utilizing modern analytics along the way.
And his presentation has resonated throughout the clubhouse.
“He’s thoughtful and he definitely thinks about things that he’s going to say to the team,” Castro said. “He has a reason for everything that he’s doing. We have seen it in the way camp has gone. That kind of approach over the course of the long season is what you have to have, especially with a young team.”
The Latin connection
In 2016, Major League Baseball and the Players Association had every club hire a translator to help Spanish-speaking players communicate with the media, a move that provided instant results.
Baldelli has taken that one step further.
He will have Elvis Martinez, a baseball communications assistant/translator, in the dugout to ensure that the Spanish-speaking players understand all pertinent communication. Martinez started in the role in a spring training game March 15 against Baltimore, accompanying pitching coach Wes Johnson to the mound to consult with Michael Pineda.
“It’s just an important thing that all of our Latin-speaking players have all the resources that we can give them to help them when they are at the field, whether they are in the clubhouse, playing in the field, frankly,” Baldelli said.
There wasn’t a moment he observed that moved him to the decision, just another way for him to establish an environment in which every player can reach his potential.
He’s making the move despite already having Spanish-speaking coaches in Rudy Hernandez and Tony Diaz on staff.
“I don’t know how comfortable I would be,” Baldelli said. “But it is my job to make all of my players comfortable. And the ability to communicate is probably one of the most important parts of that.”
What about winning?
Baldelli is detail-oriented. It helped that Shelton, who was also Paul Molitor’s bench coach with the Twins last year, had a major role in crafting the daily work schedule so Baldelli could focus on creating the right atmosphere.
Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said he was curious to see how Baldelli and Shelton would work together, considering they both interviewed for the manager’s job. But the old friends have meshed well.
“Rocco’s maintained a level of stability down there around that,” Falvey said, “but also gone back and forth with players, gotten feedback from them, made adjustments along the way.”
Baldelli will get a boost from additions to a team that lost one of its best players with the retirement of Joe Mauer.
Cruz leads the major leagues in home runs over the past five seasons. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop was an All-Star for Baltimore in 2017 before slumping in 2018. First baseman C.J. Cron hit a career-high 30 homers for Tampa Bay before being claimed off waivers during the offseason. Clearly the Twins are expecting the three to be at their best form.
Pineda, signed last year with the knowledge he would miss most of the 2018 season because of surgery, has been impressive in exhibition games. Another starter, lefthander Martin Perez, tinkered with his mechanics and is hitting 97 mph after signing as a free agent in late January. The bullpen will evolve during the season, but Falvey feels the Twins have enough quality arms to be effective.
Cruz was considered to be one of the top power hitters on the market, but other offseason moves weren’t as splashy. The plan was to see what Baldelli could do to develop the young talent, and hope that Roccoball will unlock the talent in young players like Sano and Buxton.
What is Roccoball? The exhibition games will have to become real games before that can be determined. If you go by spring training, it’s about making players comfortable.
“Let you be you,” Buxton said.
Camp was built for the Twins to play that way. It’s now time for that to be applied to the regular season.
Will it work?
“When we do break camp, we’ll be ready to go,” Baldelli said.