TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — October Optimism For Old-Timers

Minnesota’s average temperature in mid-October is just short of 60. So when it’s been raining for a week, we’re already covering our plants, and there’s 6 inches of snow in parts of North Dakota, depression can set in easily.

For the baseball fan, October is supposed to be a happy time. Play-in games followed by playoff games followed by the World Series occupy the entire month, with the Major League season now stretching into early November.

Sadly, even that has become a source for grumpiness in the Gopher State. The realization that it’s been 27 years since our Minnesota Twins won a World Series is tough enough. But after watching another lost season slip away and an unlikely team from nearby Wisconsin still making noise in the National League postseason, there’s cause for envy and embarrassment.

Oh, that final home game with the White Sox would at least be memorable, as local hero Joe Mauer got a chance to don the catching gear for one last time, presumably wrapping up a brilliant career with the hometown club.

But when just a couple of days later, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was informed his managerial services were no longer needed, our St. Paul connections had been snuffed out significantly.

Those of us old enough to remember that long ago championship in ’91, now long for the “good, old days” when another St. Paul native, “Black Jack” Morris, tossed 10 innings of masterful baseball at the Atlanta Braves. Colorful heroes like “Kirby” and “Herbie” led the charge and the Twin Cities were alive with Homer Hankies and happiness.

In the days that have followed, the Twins’ dismal 2018 season, I’ve read mostly dire predictions for the future of the franchise. And I’ve found myself generally agreeing with those assessments, particularly from cynical scribes in their senior years, like me.

Sure, the new management team of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine was hired to bring change to an organization seen by many to have fallen behind the times. Employing new school savvy with defensive shifts and endless analytics was expected to help the Twins catch up to other successful smaller market squads like Houston and Oakland. It still might.

But after two years of tinkering, here’s what many of us see as problematic:

  • With Molitor sent packing, Minnesota is losing far more than a former great player and local favorite. Just a year ago, he led the Twins to the playoffs and was named American League Manager of the Year by the baseball writers. In the midst of a tough transition to the new regime, he was praised for his rapport with younger players. This season the team won seven fewer games, but injuries and an August selloff, left Molitor with few bullets in his chamber, often fielding lineups with little known minor leaguers.
  • For all of their tinkering, Falvey and Levine have yet to earn much respect. Their offseason acquisitions last winter proved mostly fruitless. Slugger Logan Morrison hit less than .200 and wound up injured for the last month of the season.  Pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn were largely ineffective. Then when the team failed to challenge eventual Central Division winner Cleveland, the braintrust unloaded most of their few recognizable stars like Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar and Ryan Pressly. Two of those three just might be taking part in this year’s World Series.
  • The team’s cornerstone “super” stars have been anything but. Miguel Sano reported to camp out of shape, had a terrible season and continues to find himself involved in questionable off-the-field activities. Speedy Byron Buxton seldom stole bases or made spectacular catches because he was either injured or stuck in Rochester trying to find his batting stroke. When Buxton was shut down in September rather than called back up to join the Twins, the decision looked more like a cost-cutting move than one designed to benefit their young player.
  • Lastly, how do these new, young geniuses expect to sell tickets in 2019? Mauer and Molitor are gone, the club has no marquee players and the clock is ticking on still struggling Sano and Buxton. Not to mention, an already skeptical fan base sits wondering who will be the team’s new manager.

Enter my son, Pat, to infuse optimism into this aging guy’s archaic way of thinking. Like me, Pat is a huge baseball fan. In fact, he played the game in high school and his Legion team won a state championship in 2008. But most importantly, Pat isn’t clouded by years of futility and old school skepticism like the fellow writing this story.

So recently, my son managed to talk me off the ledge, even leaving me with a ray of hope that “Fal-vine” will eventually turn this thing around if we’re patient enough to give them a couple more years to implement their plan.

  • Pat contends that this is not a conspiracy against Molitor, who he acknowledges did a credible job during his tenure as Twins’ manager. Rather, it’s an opportunity for the men who were ostensibly hired to change the culture of a club that struggled mightily for most of the past decade, to do just that. That wasn’t possible a year ago, when Molitor simply won too many games. So let’s see who they hire as his replacement, before giving up the ship.
  • What the old Coyne sees as a negative, the young one views quite differently. With Mauer’s long contract finally off the books and the slowly declining Dozier off in La-La Land, the Twins have far more money to spend this winter. Often criticized for his overabundance of frugality, owner Jim Pohlad should be able to go after one of the bigger free agents, in a year when the list is quite tantalizing. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel headline a stellar cast. So even if you’re conditioned to believe the Twins never battle the big market teams in the free agency frenzy, there are plenty of other quality players available even after the cream of the crop.
  • Quite honestly, the Twins’ cupboard isn’t as bare as you might think. Shortstop Jorge Polanco missed half the year because of a suspension, then hit .288 when he returned. Outfielder Eddie Rosario had a breakout season and brings energy and enthusiasm to the lineup. Newcomers Jake Cave and Trevor Austin have home run power. Jose Berrios continues to progress as a potential big-time starter. Fan favorite Escobar might be lured back after a couple of months with the now eliminated Arizona Diamondbacks.
  • As for Sano and Buxton, it still seems too early to give up on players only in their mid-twenties. Given their previous flashes of brilliance in 2017, the potential is there. Maybe a new voice or two might help turn things around.

OK, I’ll admit I’m not totally sold. If you’ve been watching the playoffs, you’ve seen how important it is to have a deep pitching staff, something the Twins are not blessed with, these days. But then again, I think back to those glory years and recall that Tom Kelly got it done with a couple of strong starters and a solid closer. Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris are Hall of Famers. Frank Viola won a Cy Young award. But there were also the lesser-known hurlers like Les Straker and Kevin Tapani who helped piece it together. Jeff Reardon and Rick Aguilera were there to finish in ’87 and ’91. Yet who saw those titles coming? Anybody remember the Twins won just 71 games in 1986 and 74 in 1990? So hope springs eternal.

There are four teams still playing baseball. As Pat pointed out to me, all of the managers are under 50, had marginally successful careers as players and are committed to winning with fresh approaches. Come to think of it, they kind of remind me of Tom Kelly. He’s that guy who threw caution to the wind, let Jack Morris pitch 10 innings and would win a World Series at 37.

Maybe I’ll go take those covers off our plants. I’ve already heard it might warm up next week. And that March 28th Twins’ home opener is sooner than you think.

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