If music, as the saying goes, is about the silence between the notes, then it figures that Rocco Baldelli is a music lover. To the Twins manager, it seems, baseball is often about the games his players don’t play.
“We see it all the time — a rested player is just a better player,” is how Baldelli explains his philosophy. “Who plays the most is less meaningful to me than who plays the best.”
Baldelli’s less-is-more strategy paid off over the normal 162-game marathon last season, in which only one player, shortstop Jorge Polanco, appeared in more than 140 games. Now comes an interesting challenge for the Twins manager: a 60-game baseball season that’s far shorter, but figures to be far more intense.
After rushing through a brief training camp, the Twins are scheduled for only two game-free days in the first 41, and pennant-race pressure will exist from the season’s first pitch. The nine-week season may feel skimpy, but the manager — and his boss — say the number of players necessary to be successful is not.
“More than likely, we’re going to use more players than in an average year, given the unique situation that we’re dealing with,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations.
Injuries are a danger, especially with so little time to prepare, and the threat of an outbreak of COVID-19 looms over the entire league; a player who tests positive would be sidelined for two weeks, minimum. And Baldelli’s goal is to have his team peaking in September.
“You want to be just as strong, if not stronger, at that point,” Baldelli said. “When you do wear down, [when you] do give up a lot just to get through today’s game, you can be hurting [your team].”
That’s why the Twins are emphasizing their depth during training camp, why Class AAA prospect Brent Rooker has been playing first base lately, why Class AA catcher Ryan Jeffers has been behind the plate. “We have to be prepared to potentially have players and a roster that we’re not overly familiar with, and might look different a week into the season, a month into the season,” Baldelli said.
It also means having versatile players, which is why Marwin Gonzalez has been taking ground balls at three infield spots during camp, then fly balls in the outfield, too.
“Rocco has been talking to me since spring training, [telling me] that I was going to be playing all over the place,” said Gonzalez, even more than last season when he started 18 or more games at four different positions. “Probably more in the infield this year than where you saw me last year.”
Baldelli has especially given thought to how he’ll use Mitch Garver, since catching can take such a toll on the body, particularly during the hottest summer months. Garver started 73 games behind the plate last season, or 45% of the games, while enjoying a breakout season at the plate. That percentage will go up now that former starter Jason Castro has moved on, Baldelli said, but “it doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and say, ‘Hey, Mitch is going to catch four out of five games, here we go.’ ”
Garver said his goal is 40-45 games, but again, the number doesn’t mean as much to Baldelli as Garver’s condition. The 29-year-old catcher may have hit .273 last year, after all, but that number rose to .305 if he sat out the previous game.
“One thing we probably haven’t done a lot in the game is take catchers into consideration, and actually think, ‘Hey, if these guys could actually feel their legs, they might be able to perform better,’ ” Baldelli said. “Guys really seemed to really come alive when given a day here and there. I would anticipate getting Mitch out there as much as we can, but again, Mitch is also going to get his days off.”
The Twins are banking on lineup depth being important, and they believe they’re well-positioned for it. Even their pitching staff has noticed.
“The teams that have more depth, they can give their key parts breaks to keep them fresh. That’s going to be huge,” reliever Sergio Romo said. “We’ve got players to fill holes if we ever need one. It’s going to be fun to watch a team like [us].”