As Twins President Dave St. Peter prepares for Opening Day on Thursday against the Indians, his 29th season opener with the ballclub, he said that after working with managers Tom Kelly, Ron Gardenhire and Paul Molitor, he has noticed some differences in the approach of Rocco Baldelli, the 14th manager in Twins history.
“Rocco is different in that he is really a product of more of the modern metrics in baseball,” St. Peter said. “He comes from the Tampa Bay organization, one of the more progressive organizations in our sport, he’s very rooted in all of that information and how it can help him make decisions. I think it comes very naturally to him. At this point it makes him very unique amongst our managers.
“He also is very young, very focused on relationship-building with players on an individual basis. That has gone over incredibly well in our clubhouse. Our players are really feeling good about that. Over time I think that’s what Rocco is about. He’s about garnering as much information as he can to make decisions, and he’s about building relationships with players. I’m highly confident we have the right guy in that role and he’s going to have great success.”
Still, St. Peter said when it comes to judging how Baldelli will perform, he’s going to give the 37-year-old former first-round pick some breathing room.
“He hasn’t managed a game yet, we’re going to give him time to build that legacy,” St. Peter said.
Thursday marks one of the more symbolic Opening Days in recent Twins history as Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine, who took over in 2017 with Molitor in place, have their hand-picked manager in Baldelli.
It also will mark the first year the club has been without Joe Mauer since 2004, and the Twins are coming off the worst attendance season in Target Field history.
St. Peter said the team is doing everything it can to bring fans back to the stadium.
The season opener is sold out, and the fact that a 50-degree day is forecast has to be a big relief for an outdoor opener this early in the season.
“Obviously people look at the weather, and I think they’re pleased with generally what they see,” he said. “A lot of good seats available for the weekend. ... And we have a lot of different [ticket packages] out there.
“The flex season ticket plan, the Twins pass that gives you access to 79 games on a subscription basis at $49 per month, we’ve tried to be creative with what we’re doing, and we’ve had a good reaction to it, but we have a lot of work to do to really push our attendance back to where this market should have attendance for this club, back towards 2 million, 2.5, hopefully eventually 3 million fans,” St. Peter said.
And how does St. Peter feel, personally, about Opening Day?
“Opening Day is special on all fronts. Any time you go into it you have hope for what your team can evolve into, and we come into this year with a heavy dose of optimism,” he said. “But it’s a good reminder of what pro sports mean to the community. All eyes will be on Target Field on Thursday, and a lot of people come as part of a family tradition to that game on Thursday. That is always fun to see people who connect around baseball.”
Maybe the closest comparison in Twins history to bringing in 38-year-old Nelson Cruz on a one-year, $14.3 million deal was the Twins’ decision in 2010 to sign 39-year-old Jim Thome.
Cruz has the most home runs of anyone in baseball over the past six seasons with 230 since 2013. And Cruz, like Thome, is considered great in the clubhouse and the dugout.
“Nelson Cruz comes with a tremendous résumé on the diamond but also unbelievable credibility in the clubhouse, in the dugout, not just with Latino players but across our clubhouse,” St. Peter said. “There is a lot of respect there. He works incredibly hard in some unique ways. I think he is going to be a big, big impact and somebody our fans will love.”
St. Peter said fans should also be excited for their other key free-agent pickups, who are all ready to go for Opening Day.
“Jonathan Schoop is closely connected to Nelson Cruz, played a huge role in recruiting him,” the Twins president said. “He is looking for a bounce-back year. Just two years ago Jonathan Schoop got a lot of votes for MVP [Schoop finished 12th in American League MVP voting in 2017], I think people forget that. I think he’s going to have a huge role in leading us hopefully towards contention in 2019.
“C.J. Cron at first base, a lot of power, comes from Tampa, he has had a good spring, as well. Those guys, there are a couple new faces in the bullpen, but those guys offensively are going to be a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
Pitching staff balance
One of the biggest concerns in looking at the Twins is their lack of a designated closer.
But St. Peter said two things matter when it comes to that question. One is that Baldelli isn’t worried about having a designated closer right off the bat, and second is that the Twins have often had great closers come out of nowhere.
“We think this club offensively is going to be very dynamic, and from a starting pitching perspective we’re counting a lot on Jose Berrios, who will throw Thursday, along with Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi,” he said. “I don’t tend to worry as much about our bullpen, if only because I know the quality of arms that we have there. I also know that Rocco Baldelli is going to use our bullpen a little differently than other managers. I think he’s very comfortable going into the season without a designated closer, not to say somebody won’t emerge out there.”
He added that three of the greatest closers in Twins history came from crowded bullpens.
“Joe Nathan emerged as a closer, hadn’t closed before he came to the Twins. Rick Aguilera had not closed before he came to the Twins. Glen Perkins really hadn’t closed before he ended up in that role,” he said. “Guys will emerge. We have a fair amount of depth in Rochester and payroll flexibility to go enhance that over time. I think our bullpen will stabilize and be just fine.”
Yes, there will be considerable interest in the Twins with a new manager and a lot of new faces, but St. Peter knows that winning is the only thing that will keep fans coming to Target Field.