You wonder if Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine considered how popular Paul Molitor is when they fired the manager who took them to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010 and was named American League Manager of the Year.
Molitor was popular with players, and to fire him two days after the great Joe Mauer played what might turn out to be his final game, you would think they might have waited a little bit.
But in a one-on-one interview with Twins owner Jim Pohlad, he made it clear Falvey and Levine are calling the shots when it comes to all baseball-related matters, even if it means firing a guy who is a close personal friend of Pohlad.
Pohlad said Tuesday that when the team hired Falvey and Levine to turn this franchise around after six seasons where the Twins went 407-565 overall, one condition was they had to keep Molitor on as manager, even though the team had just lost a franchise-record 103 games in Molitor’s second season.
At the time, Falvey told me he believed Molitor was compatible with the new direction of the organization.
“I have been incredibly impressed by Paul,” Falvey said the day after he was hired. “I mean, he’s an incredible baseball man who has had great experiences and knows so much about the game. He’s open-minded, collaborative. I expect moving forward, we will have a great relationship. We have the same vision, which is a winning Twins team.”
But going 78-84 this season meant Falvey and Levine were comfortable firing Molitor.
Apparently there was a hint that Molitor’s job might not be safe in a recent story by Star Tribune Twins beat writer La Velle E. Neal III, in which Pohlad said, “I have no idea what [Falvey and Levine] are going to come with. No matter if we win the World Series or have a disappointing season like this, they are going to come with recommendations.”
There’s no doubt Pohlad made an agreement with the two executives that they had the right to make any decisions on the baseball operations side of things. But this firing is one of the worst moves I’ve seen in my sportswriting career.
The Twins franchise under the Pohlad family has featured a lot of loyalty to managers, even in tough times. Tom Kelly managed the Twins for 16 seasons. Ron Gardenhire replaced Kelly and managed them for 13 seasons before being replaced by Molitor in 2015.
A hard decision
Pohlad admitted that this might not be a popular decision.
“It was very hard, and I’m sure there will be varying takes on it in terms of popularity and I’m sure it’s not an easy decision,” he said. “I’m very sad about it.”
When asked if he leaves all baseball matters to his front office, Pohlad said that is the case.
“Yes, in my mind, baseball people make baseball decisions,” he said. “Those decisions result in a recommendation that they bring to [team President] Dave [St. Peter] and myself and as I have said, it is my personal call to always support those recommendations, as long as they’re well thought out and this was one.”
When asked if he had any trouble with handing over that control, Pohlad said, “They run the baseball operation, and I don’t think you want me running the baseball operation, right?”
But Pohlad had a close relationship with Molitor. Without Pohlad’s support, Molitor never would have become manager in the first place.
“As you know, I went with a commitment that Paul was going to be our manager when Derek and Thad came [to the Twins in 2016],” Pohlad said. “I feel Paul is a friend, and I feel personally invested in Paul. It was very difficult.”
This season was one of drastic turnover for the Twins, led by big trades that Falvey and Levine orchestrated, which ended any chance of a competitive season by the All-Star break.
On top of that, they had to deal with third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton having seasons of injuries and ineffectiveness, during which the front office and their young cornerstone players didn’t always see eye to eye.
When asked if he is happy with the direction of the club, Pohlad said, “Yes I am, 100 percent.”
What have Falvey and Levine done that he has liked?
“They have built an incredible baseball front office team, the team you don’t see on the field, in the baseball department,” Pohlad said. “They have been able to attract extremely qualified and quality people, and I think that is really going to pay off dividends for us in the long run.”
How to move forward
The Twins will have more money to spend than almost any team in baseball heading into the 2019 season. If the club doesn’t exercise options on designated hitter Logan Morrison and righthander Ervin Santana, their payroll could start at about $24.5 million.
“I have no idea what the preferred [offseason] route is, but I would expect it would be a whole assortment of things, including free-agent signings,” Pohlad said. “We have always said that money is not the issue, and I think that maybe not in everybody’s mind have we demonstrated that, but I think we are willing to do that.”
Does he think the Twins will have trouble attracting a quality manager, after losing 80 or more games in six of the past eight seasons?
“I believe we have an attractive job and attractive situation here in Minnesota,” Pohlad said. “I feel great about Minnesota, of course. I feel great about the Twins, the organization, the culture, so I don’t think that is going to be an issue, attracting a person.”
What is sad is that the Twins’ season ended on such a high note with all of the Mauer tributes, and 48 hours later, comes the disappointing firing of Molitor.
But now the Twins’ two top baseball executives are on the spot. They have to produce so the team can sell some season tickets next year.
The future is murkier than ever after this season’s record, the question of Mauer coming back or not, young players such as Buxton and Sano underperforming, and now Molitor being fired.
Let’s hope Falvey and Levine have a magic wand they can wave to produce a great 25-man roster and hire a manager who will not only be popular and efficient, and maybe earn a manager of the year award some day.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org