Paul Molitor's Opening Day Redemption
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA TodayMany eyebrows were raised last summer when Minnesota's GM vacancy opened up along with an immediate, non-negotiable stipulation that Molitor would stay on. His team was on its way to an historically awful finish, and given his complete lack of managerial experience prior to 2015, the sophomore skipper didn't have much to fall back on other than a revered status within the organization.
Ultimately, this wasn't a dealbreaker for Derek Falvey or Thad Levine, who are from all appearances fostering a healthy rapport with Molitor despite an inherent conflict of interest.
The new top execs are expressing a big-picture view while downplaying the importance of quick answers and short-term thinking. Molitor, on the hot seat and under the microscope, can't afford such a mindset.
He doesn't set the roster. The Twins skipper would probably rather not be tethered to a Rule 5 pick he needs to hide in the bullpen, nor deprived of ByungHo Park after watching the slugger check all the boxes over five weeks in Florida. All Molitor can do is work with what he's got, and in that respect, there have been some interesting storylines and they came into play on Monday.
Throughout the Grapefruit League, Molitor was constantly toying with his lineups, telling reporters he was open to anything. But only in the final weekend, with the Twins running through their final rehearsals, did it become clear that his willingness to get weird was legit.
The unorthodox lineup on Opening Day caught a lot of people off-guard, but it was the culmination of considerable tweaking and experimentation on Molitor's part. Robbie Grossman batting second? Byron Buxton in the three-hole? Joe Mauer hitting cleanup for the first time in 11 years?? (Go ahead and re-read that last one for dramatic effect.)
It was sequencing that defied convention. But it's not like Molitor, chomping at the bit to start on a good note and put 2016 behind him, gave this any shortage of thought. And when you squint, you can envision how the gears were turning.
Brian Dozier likes leading off, and feels comfortable there. Last year when he was most comfortable he was smashing like three homers a week. OK, not much thinking required there.
But then, you plug in Grossman who led the team in on-base percentage last year, and had a .418 clip against lefties. OBP near the top of the order – how sabermetrical!
Buxton third is unexpected but he was a monster last September and displayed equal confidence and aggressiveness this spring. Clearly Molitor believes the kid is ready to arrive, and made a statement to that effect on Opening Day.
Mauer batting fourth certainly caused the most bewilderment. His lack of power production makes him an ill fit for the traditional cleanup mold, no doubt.
But what does Molitor care about established practices? He's got nothing to lose. I suspect that the cerebral side of him sees a smart veteran player that can consistently keep rallies rolling even if he doesn't deliver the knockout punch. A selective hitter who can take pitches and handle the bat, optimal for orchestrating steals and hit-and-runs with Buxton aboard. An OBP specialist who can continually get on base ahead of Miguel Sano.
On Opening Day, Molitor's quirky lineup was immediately put to the test. In the pivotal seventh inning of a 1-1 game, the Twins mounted a threat. With two runners in scoring position and one out, the Royals intentionally walked Brian Dozier, and here came Molitor's custom made run-scoring configuration with bases loaded.
They scored runs.
Grossman did what he does – drew a walk, and it gave the Twins a lead. Next up Buxton, with a chance to do serious damage. He struck out, one of three on the day, but I'll still take him in that spot right now.
Mauer and Sano both followed with run-scoring walks of their own to build the lead before hits from Jason Castro and Jorge Polanco blew it open.
It certainly wasn't Molitor's lineup construction that won the game. We can credit Ervin Santana and some very good, disciplined Twins at-bats (aided by a bit of wildness) for that. But there were those little moments that validated the manager's creative thinking, and it all added up to one big reward: Minnesota's first season-opening win in almost a decade, and the quickest possible disassociation from last years disastrous start.
The satisfaction for Molitor and the Twins is fleeting – they've got a lot of work to do. But at least, with the schedule's customary open second day, they get a little extra time to soak it in.