When the Twins made the decision during the 2016 season to remove Terry Ryan from his general manager duties, there was a lot of rumbling that manager Paul Molitor might not hold on to his job.
Molitor had had two drastically different campaigns in his first two seasons as a pro manager — going 83-79 in 2015, making the Twins a surprise AL playoff contender, and then having the worst season in Twins history with a 59-103 mark last season.
Still there was a lot of positive reinforcement from the Twins ownership that Molitor would be retained, and when they hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to run the front office, they also supported bringing back Molitor.
Molitor said he knew this offseason would be different with the addition of new bosses, but he also said that the main goal remained the same as ever, to get the team turned around.
"It has been a little bit of a different winter in that we've been transitioning to the new leadership with Derek and Thad," Molitor told me before going to spring training. "So I have been down [in Minneapolis] a little bit more. So between exchanging information and bringing them up to speed on my opinion on our personnel, as well as trying to shape how we can turn this thing around in terms of what happened last year and moving into 2017."
Molitor said that the team's performance in 2016 spring training, when the Twins went 19-11 and a number of starters looked more than ready for the season, made it difficult to see the early-season struggles coming. The 2016 Twins began in a hole by losing their first nine games.
"You think about those things," Molitor said. "We had a really healthy, productive spring training and thought we were in fairly good position to compete. I didn't anticipate getting off to the start that we did, and we spent the rest of the year trying to recover. You learn through those things. Sometimes it's baseball, but sometimes it's emphasizing things a little bit differently in camp and being prepared to start a season, especially with young players."
The biggest improvement for the Twins, along with their starting pitching, is going to have to come from their everyday position players. The big question is whether the young talent the Twins have been cultivating for years finally will reach their potential.
Five of their nine projected starters will be 25 years old or younger in outfielders Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, third baseman Miguel Sano and shortstop Jorge Polanco. Kennys Vargas, who has a good shot to be the regular designated hitter, is 26.
The Twins still will have veterans Joe Mauer at first base, Brian Dozier at second and newly signed catcher Jason Castro behind the plate.
Molitor said he hopes Buxton's finish last year, when he hit .287 with nine homers, 22 RBI and 24 runs over his final 29 games, will have him in the right mind-set to start 2017 strong.
"I think just the maturing and progressing of our young position players will be a big part of what we're trying to do here in the near term," he said. "Byron, not that we would expect him to hit nine home runs every month, but these young guys take time to adapt up here and just kind of settle in and let their games flow, whether it's him, Kepler, Rosario, Polanco, you know, we have a young nucleus that I think is very talented, very exciting, but we have to try to bring them along as quick as we can."
Molitor also thinks that having Buxton, Rosario and Kepler patrolling the outfield should help make the pitching staff better.
"It's a nice comfort, I think, for our pitching staff and really for our team, if we can improve our defense side of the game," he said. "And being strong up the middle with Byron in center field makes a huge difference in runs that we can save throughout the year."
One issue last year was playing Sano in right field, a position he had never played before. He is now expected to be the starting third baseman.
"I'm slating him there. I don't want to give too many of these young guys too much guarantee," Molitor said. "They all have to come in and work and play and perform. But I think mentally for him to come in to camp in the infield as opposed to transitioning like he did to right field last year, I think it's going to be better."
On the pitching staff, Molitor said the return of veterans Phil Hughes and hopefully Glen Perkins can bring some stability to a group that had an AL-worst 5.08 ERA last season.
"Injuries are a part of the game and no excuses there. You hope that those guys can come back and contribute," he said. "Phil has a nice track record of being a guy who can pitch innings, and of course Glen has done remarkable things in terms of moving into the closer's role and being an All-Star out there for a few years.
"Mainly, we have to get more innings out of our rotation. You talk about [Ervin] Santana and [Hector] Santiago, we need [Kyle] Gibson to step up a little bit, [Jose] Berrios hopefully will continue to improve at this level. Then we'll have some competition with Trevor May and Tyler Duffey and guys like that that are going to have to really work hard to make an impression and give themselves a chance to contribute when we break camp at the end of spring."
It's hard to know what to expect from the Twins, but the front office, Molitor and the players have to hope that this season is a continuation of that 2015 campaign, instead of 2016.
Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m.