Paul Molitor sat in his office at Target Field last week, preparing for his second spring training as Twins manager after an eventful, and surprisingly successful, rookie season.
Molitor faced his fair share of adversity while leading the Twins to their first winning season since 2010: a key starting pitcher was suspended for half the season; four members of the Opening Day lineup lost their jobs; the bullpen was at times a playpen; and the manager had to patch things up with his closer — who wasn’t his closer in September.
Despite this, along with the standard injuries and sleepless nights that come with the occupation, Molitor appears genuinely enthused about his job as his second season approaches.
“I told a lot of managers of teams we played against, particularly at the beginning of the year, that my sense of appreciation for what they do — especially those who have done it for a while — has grown exponentially just through having the opportunity to do it,” Molitor said.
While last season was generally positive, it didn’t come without learning moments. One thing Molitor wishes he had done better was communicate some things late in the season, especially when closer Glen Perkins recovered from neck and back issues.
Players like to know where they stand, and Molitor realized just how important it was late last season while he tried to find the right relievers to lock down games as the Twins eyed a return to the postseason.
The Twins dealt for Kevin Jepsen at the July 31 trade deadline to help set up for Perkins, but Perkins, who was 28-for-28 in save situations before the All-Star break, missed 16 games in September because of back spasms. When he returned, Jepsen remained the closer.
“Everyone was confident about Jepsen coming in at the end of the game,” Molitor said. “We just kind of stuck with that. It seemed like the right thing.”
But Perkins, a three-time All-Star, wasn’t sure what his role was, and because of injuries, matchups and fatigue, it was hard for Molitor to establish a standard pecking order. Relievers had to be ready for anything with the playoffs at stake.
“There was never a conversation about, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ ” Perkins said. “It was, ‘Everyone is going to be prepared to throw at whatever point.’
“For me, coming back from being hurt and not pitching to not having a routine, not having a role that was solidified, it was tough on me.”
During one late September game, Molitor had to remove a struggling Perkins mid-inning, and the reliever jammed the ball into Molitor’s hand as he left the mound. They spoke the next day, during which Perkins apologized but said the moment was born of frustration over the game, his struggles during the second half — and the communication issue.
Molitor and Perkins met again at the end of the season, during which Molitor told Perkins then that he’s coming to camp in 2016 as the closer. Perkins, who has spent six weeks in Fort Myers, Fla., this offseason to work out daily, said Molitor expressed regret for how he handled things.
“I think there might have been a little disappointment in how we verbalized what our plans were for that last stretch of the season,” Molitor said. “If he was more than a little disappointed, then he hid it well because I didn’t feel it.”
Overall, Perkins was encouraged about the impact Molitor made as the Twins finished above .500 after four consecutive seasons of 90 or more losses.
“I think it was awesome,” Perkins said. “I think his attention to detail and his preparation were second to none.”
The Molitor Administration was presented its first crisis before the first pitch of the season was thrown. Ervin Santana, the Twins’ key free-agent signee last offseason, was suspended during the final week of camp for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He was slapped with an 80-game suspension.
Molitor said the toughest thing for him at the time was gauging how the clubhouse would react. Who would support Santana? Who would show any resentment? Molitor, while speaking to the club, voiced his support for Santana and tried to get the team focused on starting the season and moving forward.
But the Twins lost six of their first seven games, including a season-opening sweep at Detroit during which the Tigers outscored them 22-1.
“I don’t know how much [Santana’s suspension] influenced that first week, but it wasn’t very good baseball,” Molitor said. “It wasn’t just that we lost. We didn’t hit. We didn’t field. We didn’t pitch.”
Many with the club believed the sting of Santana’s suspension had a definite impact on how the team began the regular season. After a 12-3 loss to the Royals on April 13 dropped the Twins to 1-6, Molitor spoke to the team about the ebb and flow of a season, and how most teams lose six of seven games at some point. And he was believable, as believable as a Hall of Famer with a 21-year playing career can be.
“We could have lost that clubhouse right then and there,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “He did not. Paul did a wonderful job of keeping things focused at the job at hand.”
It seemed to work. The Twins won three of their next four series, then went 20-7 in May as they played their best baseball of the season.
“You know how calm, cool and collected Mollie is,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He kept reiterating how many times he got off to slow starts in his career.”
‘A funny game’
Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer were all in the Opening Day lineup, but each was replaced as the season moved along. Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano, Eduardo Escobar and Aaron Hicks (since traded to the Yankees) stepped in. While fans clamored for Jose Berrios to be called up, Tyler Duffey got the promotion and went 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA. Molitor won while developing inexperienced players, which is not easy.
Molitor leaned on many people during his first season to guide this mix of veterans and newbies. Torii Hunter, the dance party captain, was great for chemistry in the clubhouse. Molitor had no experience with bullpen management, and valued the input of pitching coach Neil Allen and bullpen coach Eddie Guardado.
And he always had Tom Kelly as a resource. Molitor spoke with his former Twins manager about a dozen times during the regular season.
“I need to write things down,” Molitor said. “It helps me, and I definitely have my Tom Kelly notebook.”
Tuesday, Molitor was in his office, learning more about the nonroster invitees headed to camp. Monday, he will join Byron Buxton and Casey Fien on the first leg of the annual winter caravan. That means the Diamond Awards and TwinsFest aren’t far away. Then it will be time to head to Fort Myers for spring training.
It’s all gearing up again, and Molitor soon will encounter a new season and another set of challenges if the Twins are to push for a playoff berth.
Youngsters such as Sano, Rosario and Buxton must continue to make progress. Joe Mauer needs to regain his stroke. Starting pitchers Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco are looking for bounce-back years. And Korean designated hitter Byung Ho Park must prove he can make the adjustment to big-league pitching.
“I don’t think we’re a typical team in a year-to-year thing and that you expect things to pick up where they left off,” Molitor said. “Each season stands on its own. You hope the things that were positives in the previous year creep into the next year.
“I’m excited to see how it is going to play out.”