Twins players have embraced their new manager and a different way to prepare for a season. Their power potential has been on display, as they were among the spring training leaders in home runs. Byron Buxton is healthy and hitting.
So much for the fake games. Now the real games are about to begin, with the Twins playing host to American League Central division rival Cleveland on Thursday in the season opener.
It won’t be long before all the Twins’ offseason work — starting with the hiring of Rocco Baldelli to replace Paul Molitor — will be put to the test.
“Looking around at our entire group, what they bring to the table every day, I couldn’t be more pleased with the energy, the effort, the way things have played out on the field,” the new manager said. “The players have been fantastic. I think it’s been a very solid camp.”
Will it lead to wins? Have the Twins discovered the right formula for success? Will the offense flow without many table setters in the batting order? Can the bullpen be trusted? Does Baldelli know what he’s doing?
There are many questions, and 162 games that will provide answers. For now, we have identified five keys to the Twins season. If they check each one of these off, it should be a good year.
1. The Rocco Baldelli-Wes Johnson relationship
You have a first-time manager, Baldelli, running a pitching staff. You have a first-year pitching coach, Wes Johnson, jumping directly from college to the majors. The Baldelli-Johnson construct might be scrutinized more than any other area of this team.
“It’s all about building progressions and prepping guys for the season,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said, “and I think Wes and Rocco are really well-aligned.”
Their success or failure won’t be from a lack of preparation. The planning meetings have been constant during camp. Bench coach Derek Shelton has helped drive conversations in the proper direction. Senior adviser Bob McClure, who has been a pitching coach for the Royals, Red Sox and Phillies, also has provided his perspective on managing a staff. The research and development department will play a daily role in providing Baldelli and Johnson the data they need to make decisions — a good fit for two analytically calibrated baseball men.
Falvey has listened in on postgame discussions among the group as it recounts moves and scenarios, and has liked what he has heard. But the games are about to count now. Baldelli and Johnson can prep all they want. What will happen when it’s time to choose between Trevor May and Blake Parker to close out a game?
“You can work off information to an extent that you can only do it so much,” Baldelli admitted. “At the end of the day you have to make a call on the person and not the player.”
2. Can Byron Buxton hit?
Eddie Rosario smiled when asked about being able, once again, to look over from his spot in left field and see Byron Buxton in center.
“I feel more comfortable,” Rosario said.
So do the Twins.
The Twins will sigh with relief every time Buxton races into the gap to make a run-saving grab. They also will sigh with relief every time he gets up safely after crashing into a wall. Buxton, once the top prospect in all of baseball, has seen his career sputter as he searches for health as well as a hitting approach that works over the long haul. He played in just 28 games last season, batting .156, spending time on the DL and the minor leagues. He is a .230 hitter over his four-year career.
Buxton — with 21 pounds of muscle added to his lanky frame — hit .444 with four home runs in exhibition games, offering some hope.
“He’s swung the bat well all spring,” Baldelli said. “He’s put good swings on fastballs, he’s put good swings on off-speed pitches and then once he gets on base, we all see what he can do.”
Just over 20 years ago, the Twins crossed their fingers that Torii Hunter could hit .250 so he could stay in the lineup. They will take .240 from Buxton, who could hit that and still impact the game on both ends. That makes Buxton’s comeback more vital to the Twins than Miguel Sano’s.
3. The core players must improve
Not long after Baldelli was hired to replace Molitor, the Twins let their plans for the offseason be known: In addition to looking to solve the Buxton-Miguel Sano conundrum, they wanted to see how Baldelli could help the Twins’ young core of outfielders Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, shortstop Jorge Polanco and righthander Jose Berrios.
Kepler and Polanco, owners of new long-term contracts, will bat at the top of the order. Rosario, who lost a runoff vote last July for an All-Star Game berth, will be entrusted with being a run producer, batting fourth behind designated hitter and big-time slugger Nelson Cruz. Berrios, who pitched in his first All-Star Game last year, is the staff ace.
However Baldelli does it — emotionally, instructionally, analytically or all three — a collective step forward by the group would be a big boost. Their development is critical given the roles they have.
“They can have an exceptional impact on this team, and I think we all know that,” Baldelli said. “These are all guys that are well known to people who’ve followed the Twins for years.
“Everyone progresses at a different rate and seasons are what they are year to year but all of these guys that we’re talking about have the type of ability and the aptitude where you could look up and I think any one of those guys that you just named could step up and become one of the best players in the game.”
4. The Michael Pineda experiment
In 2012, Michael Pineda missed the entire season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum. Last year, he missed the entire season because of Tommy John surgery.
The Twins need Pineda, 30, to be a medical marvel.
The once highly touted Pineda earned $2 million last season just for rehabilitating following surgery. He’s making $8 million this season, as the Twins bet on him to stabilize the rotation. He has showed flashes of chewing through a batting order, like he did at times when he broke in with the Mariners in 2011 then joined the Yankees a year later.
Pineda has a career record of 40-41 with a 4.05 ERA in five seasons, numbers that aren’t as impressive as his raw talent.
“Honestly, I think he looks good,” Baldelli said, “and I think he’s going to be more than ready when we break.”
Pineda has touched 95 mph with his fastball in exhibition games and has thrown some good sliders and changeups. He’s looked ready and able to contribute. He is intimidating at 6-7, and every bit of 270 pounds. The Twins might have to monitor Pineda’s workload in his first year back.
But think about that. If the Twins have to check Pineda’s workload, it means he will be pitching well.
5. Who finishes games?
Instead of adding proven late-inning talent, the Twins made one addition: Signing Blake Parker, a late-bloomer with a sharp split-fingered fastball. They have decided to go with the arms they have — plus nonroster invite Ryne Harper, who pounced on a spot created by injuries. After touting Fernando Romero as the closer of the future, they cut him from camp. Addison Reed, Matt Magill and Gabriel Moya will likely open the season on the injured list. That leaves Parker (23 career saves) and Trevor May (three) as the best options to close games. There are talented arms among the group. Taylor Rogers is an under-the-radar lefthander. Righthander Trevor Hildenberger might have struggled in save situations last year but has been effective as a setup man. The group just lacks some credibility. Baldelli also is going to reserve the right to use his best reliever in the most important situations of games, and that might not be the ninth inning.
“We’re going to run into situations where it might be a different guy each time, depending on exactly what’s going on in a game,” Baldelli said. “So it’s a very wordy way of talking about this, and it’s not the easiest for all of you to comment on or report on, but functionally, I think we win more games when we treat each situation individually.”
If the Twins come out of the gate with a string of blown saves, they will face scrutiny for not bringing in more talent when plenty of relievers were available on the free agent market during the offseason.