After the Twins earned an American League wild-card spot last season, their first postseason appearance since 2010, many baseball watchers were expecting even more from Minnesota this season.
Certainly more than they’re getting right now.
President of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made offseason moves to bolster the rotation and bullpen, and add power to the lineup, and a solid start had the Twins leading the AL Central for most of the first two weeks of the season.
Since then, however, the Twins have fallen on hard times — losers of 10 of their past 11 games heading into Wednesday’s series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays at Target Field.
“It’s frustrating,” Falvey said. “It’s certainly disappointing.”
The skid, which included a nine-game losing streak, hasn’t devastated the Twins’ prospects; they entered play Wednesday third in the Central, 4.5 games behind defending champion Cleveland.
Tuesday’s loss to the Blue Jays was the Twins’ 11th in 13 games and one of the season’s worst, a 7-4 loss in which Toronto scored three 10th-inning runs on one hit, three stolen bases and a pair of wild pitches from reliever John Curtiss, who was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester after the game.
But during a brief sit-down before Wednesday’s matinee at Target Field, Falvey expressed optimism while discussing some of the issues facing this team, from significant injuries to center fielder Byron Buxton (fractured toe), third baseman Miguel Sano (hamstring) and last year’s No. 1 starter, Ervin Santana, who started the season on the disabled list Feb. 6 surgery to repair a knuckle on his right hand, to the impending free agency of Joe Mauer, who reached base for the 22nd time in 25 starts on Wednesday.
Well, things aren’t going great. How do you feel, say, after a game like last night’s?
Falvey: Anytime you go through a stretch like we just have, I think everyone’s doing some soul searching — coaches, staff, front office, trainers, certainly players, everybody. We’re trying to think: How can we find ways to move this in the right direction? But I will say, I remain truly optimistic about the quality of talent in that room. A lot of guys that have had some real success at the major league level, not that long ago, are going to be in a place where they can help us here in the short term and help us right this ship. None of the guys in that room are going to talk about weather, or some tough schedule elements early on; those are part of the equation every year. We just need to find a way to focus on what we can control, which is today.
I can sense there still remains a positivity in that group. I’ve been around different teams at different junctures where you don’t feel that same feeling, and I still feel a positivity in there.
Joe Mauer is doing really well. Do you wait till the end of the season to discuss a contract extension?
Falvey: I do. It’s something we talked about preseason with a couple of guys; I think once you get to the season, for reasons we’re experiencing right now, you need to be focused on what’s happening today. You need to be focused on putting your team first, and ultimately I think that’s what our guys want. They want to be focused on baseball.
We know what Joe means to this franchise. We know what Joe means to this region. That won’t change. I know what Joe means as a person to me and the group here. We’ll continue to be respectful. Out of respect to him, and to our team, that’s something we won’t address until much later.
So, that’s not just for Joe …
Yeah, I mean, you never say never on anything. Things come up; sometimes they come from a player’s side, sometimes it’s just the perfect opportunity (because of) some set of reasons. I wouldn’t rule out anything in perpetuity, but I would say that by and large I would rather, once you get to the season, focus on what’s happening in season.
I know you have injuries, but are you surprised?
Falvey: Yeah. We started out in a pretty good spot; certainly the last couple of weeks it’s really taken a turn here. Yeah, I’m surprised, because I think there was a good feeling coming out of spring training. There was a component in health and others that were good early. I do think that, and these players won’t say this, losing some of the key elements that we thought were key contributors in the early going here. Byron’s dealing with some things, and Miguel is now dealing with another issue. We haven’t talked much about the loss of Polanco, but that’s been a challenge for us. And Erv not being part of our mix right now; he was a leader for us on our pitching staff last year. We’re going to get each of those guys back here at different times over the next couple of months, but it feels like we could benefit from some of those guys returning.
Michael Pineda is here now, and manager Paul Molitor insinuated this morning that there’s some hope that he might pitch this year.
Falvey: We’re looking at Michael for 2019, no question. That’s our priority. But, I will say that because his rehab is going well, and the realities of return timelines (from Tommy John surgery), is there a scenario where we see the mutual benefit of him pitching in September — and also impacting our team out of the bullpen, hopefully when we’re in a nice run here? It’s a possibility. But I will say we’re planning mostly with 2019 in mind. If that becomes something we think about, I think that will be a good conversation for August.
Trevor May was part of that big trade that sent Ben Revere to Philadelphia in 2012. It’s been a long time, but you still see big upside on him?
Falvey: I do. I thought that last spring when he was working into his own there and had the unfortunate injury in that game in Fort Myers, we felt that he was progressing really nicely and was making some adjustments he needed to as a starter. Then he has the injury and he had to wait the whole 12 months to go through this again. I still feel that in terms of what we see from Trevor, the best is definitely ahead of him, and it’s exciting to think about how he could join up with a stable of guys like Berrios, like a Pineda, like Fernando Romero and some of the other guys that haven’t experienced the success of some of the more mature guys here and add to that.
With Santana, the question everyone wonders about is why he didn’t get surgery after the season. What is the reason?
Falvey: Yeah, and that’s a fair question. He came to the end of the year, he had some soreness, we had it evaluated early — something he’s dealt with in the past. So, at this stage of his career, he knows his body pretty well. He was fine through the early stages of the offseason, started his throwing program and felt pretty good on long toss. When he started doing some things around the slider is when he started to feel it. Now, Erv would never use this as an excuse; he would say there are different times of the year he probably has dealt with that in season. But to have that happen before the season started, then worry we would be dealing with it for subsequent months during the year, we got to it as quickly as we could then.
I know it’s an old story, but now Sano is on the DL again. Does he need to slim down?
Falvey: I think we’re always attentive to his body, and that’s something we need to continue to be aware of. Strength has always been our focus, and functional strength. He’s never going to look like Ehire Adrianza; he’s just not the body type. But I think that if we continue to focus on showing him what needs to happen from a strength-and-movement standpoint, and what it takes to play every day, that’s going to be our focus. Ultimately, that may correlate with weight changes over time.
Do you think he’s just young and doesn’t understand it yet?
Falvey: I will say that when you talk to veteran players, there are certain things they’ll tell you that when they were 22, 23 (years old), they feel differently about when they’re 30. That’s not just baseball; I think that’s just life and how people grow and develop. But I will say he’s experiencing some challenges right now with respect to his physical health and well-being, and he’s going to revisit all opportunities for him to get better: dietitian and people working with him on appropriate plans moving forward; we have the strength-and-conditioning approach. We’re approaching this with every resource we can to put him in the best position to be successful.