FORT MYERS, FLA. – One day after the Twins' season ended last fall, Derek Falvey vowed that the team would not overreact to poor play during a pandemic, that he understood some rough performances in 2020 "can be chalked up to a challenging environment that affected some more than others."
Three months later, the Twins president of baseball operations lived up to that conviction: He offered Hansel Robles a contract. Now the Twins get to find out which version signed it.
"We don't want to put too much stock in what we saw in a pandemic-shortened season that didn't look anything like normal," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We're going to rely more on what we think of our players than what we saw over 60 games."
That's good news for Robles, a 30-year-old Dominican who accepted a $2 million contract in December.
"It came about pretty quick. It was obvious in my mind [that] I wanted to be here because of the clubhouse and the nucleus they have here," Robles said though an interpreter during a video call with reporters. "I guess they needed relief help, and I've done it before."
He has, both good and bad. The righthanded reliever, who began his career with three-plus seasons on the Mets, enjoyed what appeared to be a breakthrough season in 2019, earning the confidence of the Angels by saving 23 games in 27 chances and striking out more than a batter an inning with a 2.48 ERA.
He even adopted a distinctive shtick that Angels fans loved, jogging in from the bullpen while "Rest in Peace," the musical theme of pro wrestler The Undertaker, blared over speakers in Anaheim.
"I don't really like wrestling. I don't even watch it. But one day, I [saw] his intimidation mode that he walks in with," Robles explained of his trademark entrance. "I thought, maybe that works for me, so I started using it."
But his career looked like it was headed to the undertaker just one year later. New manager Joe Maddon used Robles in the ninth inning four times in the season's first week, watched him surrender multiple runs in three of them, and yanked closer duties away from him. From there, the problems kept multiplying for Robles. His average fastball velocity dipped from 97.2 mph to 95.4, and Robles spiraled to a 10.26 ERA and a release by the Angels.
What happened? COVID-19.
"Starting 2020 spring training and going full speed, then having to stop because of the pandemic, it was tough. It got to me a little bit," Robles said. "Then you had to stay inside because you were scared of getting sick and your family [too], and then going back at it again — that was difficult for me. We played a short season, but that doesn't mean it was easy."
It might make a bounce-back season easier, though, because his sudden loss of command, his inability to overpower hitters, was not injury-related. Robles feels 100% healthy, he said, his arm as pliable as ever.
"It was the mental aspect of the game more than anything," he said. "When we started again, we had a minicamp, but it felt rushed. Now we are better prepared, so I feel safer."
And the Twins are optimistic that their investment — in a versatile setup man for Alex Colome and Taylor Rogers — was a safe one, too.
"We saw a guy who we know can produce at the major league level and pitch in a good bullpen and fill that role and do it with swing-and-miss stuff," Baldelli said. "We still think there's more in there for him to unlock. We think he can be dominant."