There’s no question that this is the biggest transitional season in Jim Pohlad’s time as owner of the Twins.
He will have a new manager in Rocco Baldelli who is the first one hired from outside the organization since Ray Miller came from the Orioles in the middle of the 1985 season. Miller lasted part of two seasons before being replaced by Tom Kelly.
The team also is dealing with low attendance. The past five seasons, in which the Twins have had three losing years including 78-84 in 2018, they have combined to average 25,790 fans per game, after getting 35,943 fans per game the first four seasons at Target Field.
And there’s no doubt that playing without Joe Mauer means the team has to have other players step up, and the fact that Pohlad signed off on contract extensions for shortstop Jorge Polanco and outfielder Max Kepler shows that the owner is ready to have a new group take over the club.
So is Pohlad still excited to be owner of the club after a decade?
“Everybody likes to be involved with sports [ownership] and baseball in particular,” said Pohlad, whose father, Carl, died 10 years ago. “This time of year there are 30 optimistic teams. We’re one of them. It’s fun.”
As for the Twins’ expectations, Pohlad said: “I don’t want us to be a team that always defies expectations. So if expectations are high we go low, and if they’re low we go high. But that is kind of the way it has been so far.
“We have high expectations for the team, we do this year. We hope they come to fruition.”
Asked for his early impressions of Baldelli, hired to replace Paul Molitor, Pohlad has liked what he has seen.
“We’re hearing a lot about this right now, that people connect quickly to Rocco, and that is the way it was for me,” he said. “I participated in the interview for a handful of candidates, but the connection with Rocco was immediate.”
Moving forward from Mauer
Is he worried about getting fans to the ballpark without Mauer?
“I don’t want to say it will be terrible, because I love Joe Mauer, but everything moves on,” Pohlad said. “His life has progressed. He’s gotten older, like I have. You just have to accept change when it comes.”
And while there was never a question of the Twins spending money with Mauer’s big $23 million deal on the books, he did say that going forward it doesn’t mean the team is going to spend thoughtlessly.
“We definitely have payroll flexibility, but it’s not like there is some requirement that we have to spend the money,” he said. “We will if it can be proven and it’s the recommendation of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.”
How does Pohlad feel his baseball operations team of Falvey and Levine has done entering their third season?
“We’re committed, and we understand all of this is a long-term process,” Pohlad said. “It’s not about hiring a magician or magicians and they come in and perform a magic trick that brings in world championships. It’s a long process, and you build for the long term.”
Pohlad said he recognizes how Falvey, Twins chief baseball officer, and Levine, the general manager, are changing the team’s baseball operations from top to bottom.
“It is a change from the prior group of people that was here, there is no doubt about that,” he said.
Pohlad admitted he does not have much insight on the technological changes the team is implementing. “But I know they are utilizing technology, and that is an investment,” he said. “Besides people, it is an investment in software that we have made, also.”
Target Field still improving
When the funding was approved for Target Field, Pohlad told me a new stadium on its own would not bring fans out over the long term. The Twins needed to win.
And that has proved to be true the past few years with Twins attendance dropping during some tough seasons.
Still, Pohlad said the ballpark is a night-and-day difference from the Metrodome, even as it enters its 10th season of operation.
“I mean it’s a great place to watch baseball, compared to the Metrodome,” he said. “There were a lot of great memories, but it’s like watching something in black and white versus in color.”
And how about the changes at Target Field coming this year, with the new juniper plants on the center field backdrop and the big increase in space for the main entrance off Target Plaza?
“It has been almost 10 years now, and you start to see things that you start to think about replacing things, because nothing lasts forever,” Pohlad said. “But our goal is to keep in pristine condition at all times.”
Still, he knows that when it comes to increasing attendance in 2019, it’s all about winning.
“We’re not happy, that is for sure,” Pohlad said. “I get it, people want to come and want a winning team, and we do, too.”
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck recently talked about how transfers Micah Dew-Treadway and Gervarrius Owens can help the team immediately: “Dew-Treadway, the defensive tackle from Notre Dame, will help us and he will play. We get him for one year and maybe, hopefully, for two. … Owens is a guy we signed and we have him for three years, which is really good because we need some depth in the secondary.”
• Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill was named the athletic director at Southern Illinois on Thursday. He was the acting AD since April 2018. That promotion couldn’t have happened to a better or more deserving person.
• The New York Times ran a story last week about Sports Reference, which operates many popular statistical websites including Baseball Reference. The story quoted Twins GM Thad Levine, who noted the team hired Hans Van Slooten away from the company to be a baseball systems operator last year.
• Timberwolves rookie Josh Okogie took part in the NBA Rising Stars Game on Friday after his best game as a pro in Wednesday’s 121-111 victory over Houston. Okogie had 16 points, three rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. “We saw him grow up in a lot of ways,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. … All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half of that game, shooting 10-for-12 from the floor and 3-for-4 from three-point range. He added nine rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocked shots. … Maybe Andrew Wiggins, who missed the victories over the Clippers and Rockets because of illness, should come off the bench and be successful like Taj Gibson has the past couple of games.
• The Gophers really miss point guard Nate Mason, who was recently claimed by the Texas Legends of the NBA G League. In two games, Mason has averaged 4.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals.