On Sept. 29, 2014, the Twins for the first time since 1986 fired their manager. Terry Ryan, then the Twins’ general manager, conducted a lengthy search for Ron Gardenhire’s replacement, eventually choosing Paul Molitor.
Ryan told me the next spring that Molitor had edged Torey Lovullo for the job, with Doug Mientkiewicz finishing third.
On Tuesday night, Molitor was named American League manager of the year and Lovullo was named National League manager of the year.
In September, Twins’ bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine fired Mientkiewicz as their Class A manager. Imagine if they had then declined to re-sign Molitor, a decision that remained in doubt until Oct. 9.
Had they failed to bring back Molitor, Tuesday would have become one of the more embarrassing days in Twins history. Instead, the Twins’ recent slew of awards places the onus on Falvey and Levine to perform as well this winter as their best employees did last summer.
Molitor is the manager of the year. I don’t know whether he deserved the award more than Houston’s A.J. Hinch, who is exceptional, but with an award that is more about perceptions than in-depth statistical analysis, Molitor wrote the best story, helping the Twins improve by 26 games and making the playoffs even after Falvey and Levine dealt away two pitchers at the deadline.
Twins center fielder Byron Buxton won gloves of gold and platinum, second baseman Brian Dozier matched his gold, and the Twins sent three other players to the All-Star Game — Miguel Sano, one of baseball’s most valuable players in the first half; closer Brandon Kintzler, who was later traded; and pitcher Ervin Santana. All of the honorees other than Kintzler will return to the Twins, and he could return in free agency.
Young teams progress the way financial failures go broke — gradually and then suddenly. From 2011 through 2014, the Houston Astros averaged 104 losses. Last month they won the World Series.
During that time the Chicago Cubs averaged 94 losses. In 2016, they won the World Series.
During those years, the Twins averaged 96 losses.
The Twins have enough position-playing talent to become the next team in line to surge to a championship, but only if Falvey and Levine improve their pitching.
Last winter, they added players who became leaders — Jason Castro, Chris Gimenez and Matt Belisle. This time around they will require pitchers who lead with performance.
First, Falvey and Levine need to belatedly replace Kintzler. The Twins possess a number of promising bullpen arms but require a closer to take the pressure off youngsters such as Trevor Hildenberger.
The statistical value of a closer may be in question, but in real life managers and relievers benefit from knowing who will take the ball with a lead in the ninth, and who can handle failure when it arises.
Wade Davis would be the ideal acquisition but he will be heavily pursued and probably shockingly expensive. Closers, though, tend to be safer bets than starting pitchers in terms of durability and predictability.
With a hard-throwing closer in place, the bullpen will have a chance to be above average. Last year, the Twins finished 22nd in the majors in bullpen ERA. Molitor navigating that minefield every night is one reason to give him the manager of the year award.
The Twins could use another veteran starting pitcher, as well. They can dream of Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta; Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb might be more realistic.
Last winter, Falvey and Levine had little reason to believe that one big move would resurrect a 103-victory team. They probably anticipated a year of evaluation followed by the dismissal of Molitor and the beginning of an earnest rebuild.
Molitor sped the process, saved his job and prompted dreams, but he won’t be able to win a World Series unless Falvey and Levine move more aggressively in free agency than they did last month, when the next manager of the year found himself in contractual purgatory.