While Derek Falvey and Thad Levine seemed to hint during a Q&A with season-ticket holders on Thursday that big changes are on the way for the Twins, they also sounded strongly committed to a pair of notable players: first baseman Joe Mauer and center fielder Byron Buxton. And they made it clear that the decision to keep Neil Allen as pitching coach, despite a worst-in-the-majors pitching staff last season, had much more to do with the future of Twins pitching than the past.
Here are a few more excerpts from the conversation with ticket-holders by Falvey, the team’s new Chief Baseball Officer, and Levine, the general manager:
• Falvey on Mauer: “We have every expectation of Joe as a contributing member of this team,” Falvey said in response to a question from a fan who sounded skeptical of Mauer’s worth. “Joe means so much to this franchise, he means so much to this region — this is home for him, and that’s not lost on us. He cares deeply about the success of this team.”
Falvey said Mauer, who next spring enters the seventh season of his eight-year, $23-million-per-season contract, is still well respected by opponents, even if his play is no longer MVP caliber. Mauer batted .261 with a .363 on-base percentage in 134 games last year.
“From the other side, Joe’s still one of the tougher guys to get out,” Falvey said. “The way his swing plays, his play at first base … we have every expectation he’ll be here helping us.”
• Levine on Buxton: “That was one of most exciting things for us to come over here, to work with a player of that caliber whose best days are ahead of him. He is an uber-talented prospect,” Levine said. “Both Derek and I assure you, we were trying to acquire him before we got here.”
Levine said Buxton’s performance after rejoining the team in late August is a good indication that the soon-to-be 23-year-old is making the difficult transition to the majors. Buxton batted .225 with 10 home runs for the season, but nine of the homers came after Sept. 1 and he hit .287 in the season’s final month.
“What we saw out of him down the stretch was just scratching the surface of what we can expect from him going forward,” Levine said. “What the fans have seen already is that his speed is a plus tool — it plays on the base paths, it plays in the outfield. He’s got great instincts and great routes in the outfield. We think he has a chance to be a gold glove center fielder.”
That Buxton had not excelled in his previous stints in the majors should not be a surprise, Levine emphasized to Twins fans. “It’s very rare for a player, even star-caliber players, to come up to the big leagues and be who they will be at their best right away,” he said. “So it’s challenging for fans to hear this, but truly, often times patience does pay off, and you saw that in Byron’s season. He got off to a slow start, but he started picking up momentum. He’s one of those guys who got better, month after month. He finished the season on a great run, and we’re hoping that’s a springboard for him moving forward.”
Similarly, Jose Berrios’ 8.02 ERA as a rookie shouldn’t be taken as an indication of anything but his age and inexperience, Falvey said. “I’ve experienced some of same transition. It’s easy, when a pitcher is performing at major league level, to forget what those transitions looked like,” Falvey said. “Jose is in that period right now. He’s learning how to pitch, how to command his fastball.”
• Falvey on Allen: After a “very thorough evaluation process” of the coaching staff, “I had an opportunity to talk with Neil and present the vision of how we would operate moving forward,” said Falvey, who specialized in the pitching staff while serving as assistant general manager in Cleveland. “It’s something I feel he’s committed to, and Paul [Molitor, the Twins’ manager] feels he’s committed to. We talked about our broad strategy for how we’re going to approach pitching, and I have every expectation that Neil is going to help us move forward with that.”