This Season Is a Culmination of the Front Office's Successes
What we're seeing this year is the same thing we saw last year: an elite team, loaded with talent and performing at an extraordinarily high level. There's plenty of credit to go around, but it's hard to ignore the direct impact of moves made by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine over the past couple years. And I'm talking beyond their broader work building out the organization's infrastructure, and investing in innovation.
Here are five decisions that loom large as the Twins charge toward the postseason:
1. Hiring Rocco Baldell as manager and Wes Johnson as pitching coach.
The entire coaching staff seems quite effective, really, but these two stand out.
Baldelli was the deserving recipient of AL Manager of the Year in 2019, his first season at the helm, and he's in the running for it again. The Twins definitely took a chance on Rocco, replacing a local legend in Paul Molitor with a total outsider who became the youngest skipper in the game. Their faith has been validated at every level. Baldelli is a brilliant tactical manager with tremendous strategic vision, and his ability to connect with players – stuffing out drama and constantly maintaining an even-keeled vibe – is uncanny.
Selecting Johnson as pitching coach required a leap of faith on its own for the Twins. He became the first person ever to jump into the major-league role straight of out college, and Wes brought with him new-age philosophies. He was known at Arkansas as an instructor who could truly elevate performance, and he has translated this knack to the highest level. Roster-building has of course played a part (and we'll get to that) but under Johnson, Twins pitchers are throwing harder, dominating more, and consistently reaching their potential.
2. Building a power bullpen.
A deep and dominant bullpen was key to the World Series run from Derek Falvey's Cleveland Indians in 2016. When he took over the Twins afterward, the relief corps he inherited was a far cry. But over the course of these past four years, Minnesota's bullpen has been gradually upgraded and enhanced. The past year alone has seen a dramatic overhaul; consider that their Opening Day bullpen in 2019 consisted of Trevor May, Taylor Rogers, Blake Parker, Trevor Hildenberger, Ryne Harper, Martín Pérez, and Adalberto Mejía.
This radically reconstructed Twins bullpen is currently tied with Tampa Bay for first in the majors in fWAR. They're fifth in ERA, sixth in FIP, and fifth in strikeout rate. It's a top-tier unit by almost any measure, helping the Twins weather frequent bullpen games without much issue.
The origin stories vary for this collection of standouts, but each one has the front office's fingerprints all over it.
There was Sergio Romo, acquired at the deadline last year and re-signed as a free agent during the offseason. Caleb Thielbar was more or less talked out of retirement, and he has come back more effective than ever before. Matt Wisler was claimed off waivers, and has been reinvented as an overpowering weapon with his unsolvable slider. Jorge Alcala came over in a 2018 trade. Tyler Clippard was plucked from the rival Indians as a free agent. Tyler Duffey was an incumbent who finally unlocked his potential.
It all adds up to a bullpen that's been a phenomenal asset, and a crucial contributor to the team's success.
3. Signing Nelson Cruz
I think we can safely say it's the best free agent signing in franchise history. (A sentimental fan might point to Jack Morris, but I'd heartily disagree.) Cruz signed for a relatively modest sum two offseasons ago, and immediately became the heart and soul of this team, with his likability and leadership qualities somehow overshadowing back-to-back MVP-caliber performances on the field.
We're already seeing the impact of Josh Donaldson, who became the front office's new marquee signing over the winter, and I hope we'll continue to see it for years to come. But nothing can contend right now with the impact of Cruz. He's been an absolute revelation.
4. Drafting Ryan Jeffers
Many outside observers considered it a reach when the Twins used the 59th overall pick in 2018 to select Jeffers, a slugging college catcher out of UNC-Wilmington whose defensive skills were generally considered suspect. The Twins saw something different, and two years later they've been proven 100% correct.
Despite having zero experience above Double-A, and having had no opportunity to play in real games this summer, Jeffers stepped in after Mitch Garver got hurt and has looked like a natural. His smoothness and confidence behind the plate are shocking for a 23-year-old rookie, as his keen eye at the plate. He rarely chases outside of the zone and has shown the ability to absolutely decimate baseballs when he squares up. His pitch-framing ranks in the 85th percentile of all major leaguers according to Statcast.
Jeffers has instantly settled in as an above-average MLB catcher, and what he did as a rookie while both Garver and Alex Avila were sidelined should not be overlooked as a major factor in the team's success this year. Jeffers may very well start behind the plate for Game 1 in the playoffs.
5. Acquiring Kenta Maeda
Falvey and Levine set out this past offseason with one guiding mission: upgrade the rotation. That meant adding a pitcher better than José Berríos or Jake Odorizzi, who were both All-Stars last season, as well as Michael Pineda, who was also brought back with a savvy deal during the offseason.
Initially, Falvey and Levine set their sights on Zack Wheeler (wisely, it seems – he's currently 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA for the Phillies). When he chose to go elsewhere, they reportedly engaged with other free agents but weren't too aggressive. The Twins weren't going to commit a historic contract, or trade a premium talent, unless they felt confident in what they were getting back.
They felt confident in Maeda, and they have been rewarded.
By almost any worthwhile measure, the right-hander has been a top 10 pitcher in baseball. Already a dominant force against righty hitters, Maeda has unlocked a new level of effectiveness against lefties by tweaking his pitch mix, with help from the Twins (and Johnson).
He's been an ace under any definition of the word, and while it hurts to give up an arm like Brusdar Graterol, even there we find signs of a responsible, proactive front office. Alcala, whom they acquired as a prospect two years ago, has filled the role of young fireballer with the triple-digit heater and ferocious slider, and he's doing it equally well.
Maeda will be Minnesota's Game 1 starter in the playoffs. Alcala will be one of the first arms out of the bullpen. Jeffers might start behind the plate. Cruz will (hopefully) bat in the heart of the lineup.
Like I said, this front office's fingerprints are all over a fantastic 2020 Twins team that's well positioned to make some serious noise in October. Take a bow, Falvine and Co.
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