Season preview: Twins ready for fresh start under rookie manager Baldelli
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins hired the youngest manager in the major leagues. They remade the right side of the infield. There will be a new closer, too, should rookie skipper Rocco Baldelli decide to designate a particular reliever for ninth-inning duty.
Starting fresh doesn’t necessarily mean starting over, though.
The Twins have quietly built a roster that, if their most important under-28 players either continue to progress or rebound from rough seasons, has the capability of at least pushing the defending AL Central champion Cleveland Indians for the division title. They made the playoffs just two years ago, after all.
By inserting Nelson Cruz , C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez into the lineup, the power-hitting potential has significantly increased. Rotation newcomers Michael Pineda and Martin Perez have made a combined 245 career starts. Blake Parker, the primary ninth-inning reliever last season for the Los Angeles Angels, has joined the back of the bullpen.
There was no more notable addition than the 37-year-old Baldelli, who spent the last eight seasons in various roles with the innovative Tampa Bay Rays after his promising playing career was shortened by a rare muscular disorder.
When Paul Molitor was fired last fall after four years, a tenure that featured the AL Manager of the Year Award in 2017, Baldelli was targeted as one of the final pieces in the organizational revamp engineered by chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine since they were hired after the 2016 season.
Driven by collaboration, communication and, of course, data, the Twins have enhanced their front office, adjusted roles on the coaching staff and utilized as many technological advances as possible to improve the on-field product for a team that has not won a postseason series since 2002. They identified Baldelli as the boss on the bench who could bring out the best in their ever-important younger players, several of them underperforming.
The Twins have used 79 different players over the last two seasons, including 54 of them last year, so perhaps it should have been no surprise that Baldelli’s first official address to the team in spring training focused on unity.
“I spoke a little bit about the importance of the Twins organization and all of the good things that have gone on here, all of the great people here and also the bringing in of some new people and some new ideas and bringing all of the best of both of those sides together to create something new,” Baldelli said last month.
The Twins start the season at home on March 28 against the Indians.
The 38-year-old Cruz, the six-time All-Star who will be the primary designated hitter, was signed in part for clubhouse leadership. He has also averaged 41 home runs and 104 RBIs over the last five years. Cron, who hit 30 homers last season for the Rays, was claimed off waivers to replace the retired Joe Mauer at first base. Schoop is at second base, and the multi-position-playing Gonzalez will take the lead at third base with Miguel Sano out until at least early May because of a severe cut above his heel.
The spring training performance of Pineda has been scrutinized as much as anyone on the roster, with the 6-foot-7 right-hander having last pitched on July 5, 2017, for the New York Yankees before an elbow injury required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. Catcher Jason Castro has also been working his way back from a knee injury that arose last April and limited him to 19 games.
Center fielder Byron Buxton’s struggles to stay healthy and stop striking out so much, mirroring his friend Sano’s so-far-unfulfilled career, reached a new low last year. Angered that he wasn’t called back up from the minors in September, Buxton added muscle, ditched the leg kick in his swing and displayed a renewed sense of confidence in camp this spring.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
Backup catcher Willians Astudillo became a cult hero last season , and with only 97 plate appearances he maintained his rookie status for 2019. The 27-year-old native of Venezuela, who could also play third base, second base or left field in a pinch, cemented fan-favorite status with his 5-foot-9, 225-pound frame, floppy curls, aggressive style and “La Tortuga” nickname. That’s Spanish for turtle.
Astudillo is more than just a lovable underdog, though. His swing-at-everything approach at the plate can give the Twins a valuable bat off the bench, as he proved by posting an .887 on-base-plus slugging percentage in 29 games. Astudillo is a .306 career hitter in the minor leagues.