While his bosses with the Minnesota Twins have been constructing the roster, new manager Rocco Baldelli has been busy building relationships with the players now under his supervision.
His ability and desire to do that was one of the biggest reasons why he got the job, after all.
“People get a feel for other people over time, and you just try to be yourself and you end up proving yourself every day,” Baldelli said. “That’s how we’re going to build what we’re going to build here.”
Though Baldelli committed much of the last three months to those getting-to-know-you talks with players, coaches and other Twins staff he’ll be working closely with, this week has provided his first significant opportunity to conducting these conversations in person with the first pitchers and catchers workout of spring training fast approaching on Feb. 14.
After spending four days with starting pitcher Jose Berrios and left fielder Eddie Rosario for meet-and-greets with fans on one leg of the team’s winter caravan that took them to bowling alleys, middle schools and frozen lakes, Baldelli and the majority of the players on Minnesota’s major league roster have convened for the weekend at Target Field for the annual fan festival. They’ll be mingling with the public for autographs, pictures and questions, but they’ve also set aside more time for the invaluable bonding that sure can’t hurt the goal of establishing a smooth and successful 2019 season.
“I would really like to create an environment in this clubhouse and with the organization as a whole where these players can just be who they are,” Baldelli said Friday. “They don’t have to conform to any kind of standards, except for respecting everyone and going out there and competing every night when they take the field. That’s really all I care about at the end of the day. These guys can show a little personality and be who they are.”
Chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine made the decision after a 78-84 finish by the Twins to replace Paul Molitor with Baldelli, who at age 37 is the youngest manager in the major leagues . They sought a unifying presence between the front office and the clubhouse, a fresh voice who could better connect with millennials and their generational traits.
“Today’s players are so much more demanding than they once were, and they’re not content just having somebody to dictate what we’re doing,” Levine said. “They ask why a lot, and then I think if you’re connected to their hearts you have a much better chance of prevailing on delivering your message. I see Rocco investing at that ground level right now.”
One of the most noteworthy efforts Baldelli engaged in since he was hired was traveling to rural Georgia to see center fielder Byron Buxton and then the Dominican Republic for time with third baseman Miguel Sano, two players long groomed as franchise cornerstones but underperforming at this stage of their careers and coming off rough 2018 seasons.
“He’s decided that, for right now, ‘I need to get to know these players inside and out,'” Falvey said. “When he invests, he invests.”
Sano was given permission to skip TwinsFest because his Dominican winter team won the league championship and reached the Caribbean Series. One other key player absent this weekend was starting pitcher Kyle Gibson, who has been ill from the E. coli bacteria.
Since the 2018 season ended, the Twins have enhanced their lineup by acquiring first baseman C.J. Cron, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and designated hitter Nelson Cruz. They’ve more recently signed relief pitcher Blake Parker and have been finalizing a contract with starting pitcher Martin Perez.
Still, after fielding a team with a $131 million payroll on opening day last year, ranking 17th in the major leagues, the retirement of first baseman Joe Mauer and other free-agent departures have significantly reduced the cost commitments for 2019. That has caused consternation in some corners of the fan base, with a rich field of free agents remaining on the market headlined by outfielder Bryce Harper, relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel and of course shortstop Manny Machado.
“We’re set up well to invest,” Falvey said, “when we feel the right fits are there.”