by Thomas U. Tuttle
The Minnesota Twins held a press conference the other day to announce that manager Paul Molitor had agreed to terms on a three year deal worth about four million dollars, or roughly one-sixth of what Joe Mauer makes in one year.
And while Mauer had a good year and earned his money (???) it was Molitor who held things together, forged trust and confidence among his diverse band of players, survived the use of 36 – yes, 36! – pitchers over the course of the season, won 26 more games than the previous year – and ultimately made the American League playoffs.
Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey followed Molitor to the podium and made it clear that he and GM Thad Levine were ultimately convinced that, via the long path of 162 games, the current manager of the ballclub was the right leader to take the Twins into the future.
“Over the course of the year, it felt like we were building a relationship,” Falvey said early is his remarks. And he followed that important comment with another revealing statement: “I’m not surprised by the class shown by Paul, given who he is as a person, that he handled things so well” – words spoken in recognition of the difficult position Molitor was in, essentially all year, working the final year of his contract.
And knowing, without much doubt, that expectations were that the new, post Terry Ryan braintrust would bring in their own brand-new outside guy to manage the club.
But Falvey and Molitor, as a pleased owner Jim Pohlad said Tuesday, “built a relationship over time (and) I had heard over the course of the year that was how it was going.” Indeed, growing mutual respect between the 61-year-old field general and the 34-year-old CBO was the theme of the day. “I understand that he (Falvey) is looking to build a long term, sustained, championship type program – and I’m all in with that!”
Some press conferences don’t tell you much, but this one did. Paul was fairly relaxed and reflective, on a season recently ended and a future that could be bright. These guys can work together; Falvey was credited by Molitor with never really commenting, let alone interfering, in a game situation. And at the same time, the young chief respects Mollie enough to expect his observations and potential insights on player decisions, including additions and subtractions from the squad.
Thirty six pitchers is not necessarily a good thing, of course, although Molitor noted that it did give him a chance to evaluate “a lot of arms.” Indeed. The Twins put a stable team on the field, with ten players getting 400-plus at-bats – the most in all of baseball. But – and it’s a big but – the pitching MUST improve significantly or great hitting, like exceptional managing, won’t be able to overcome weak starters and a very modest bullpen.
It was interesting for me to watch Hall-of-Famer Molitor coach against my fellow Northwestern Wildcat baseball alum Joe Girardi. Paul was the greatest shortstop of his time while at Minnesota (and arguably the best ever in the Big Ten) while Girardi earned All American honors as well, behind the plate, about a decade later. He has won rings with the Yankees as a player and manager.
Paul was a big part of my book STATE OF THE GAME which came out in 2000. In it, I devoted a chapter to his special nature as a player and leader – but more than that, as a baseball man. My projection was that he would eventually manage, and manage well. Not that difficult a prognostication, I guess, although it took almost 15 years longer than I thought it would for him to take the helm. (He was offered the Toronto job years ago, but the timing wasn’t right.)
Girardi was much the same, and to watch them square off in a one-game playoff contest was a treat for me. I almost flew out to New York, but I’m glad I didn’t. Mr Confidence, Ervin Santana, laid an egg after being given a three run first inning lead. Walked the leadoff man, gave up a three-run homer minutes later, and deflated his team like a bench-clearing gasser.
Girardi heads to the AL championship behind excellent starters and a powerful bullpen. I’d sure like to see a 5-game or 7-game matchup between the two Big Ten all-star managers, maybe next year. But you have to get batters out at critical times, and the Twins are going to need to vastly improve in that critical department.
I’ll let you in on a little something; In July, I caught up with youthful (43) Chicago Cubs World Series winning General Manager Jed Hoyer. It was at the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) conference in NYC this summer. His words to me, when I asked about Minnesota’s new hire Derek Falvey, were these: “He will be a great fit, and he really knows how to build pitching.”