Twins find bright spots
WILLMAR — For manager Paul Molitor, the Twins Winter Caravan finished just like it began: with questions from the audience regarding the future status of second baseman Brian Dozier.
Coming off a disheartening 59-103 season, the contingent of Molitor, broadcaster Dick Bremer and relievers Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Pressly concluded its tour through Twins Territory at the Kandi Entertainment Center Thursday night.
Directed by questions from Bremer, the Twins opened up the hour-long event discussing the bright spots—which included Kintzler and Pressly—from another otherwise forgettable 2016 campaign and spoke with optimism for the upcoming season.
When the time came for questions from the crowd, there was no running from the inevitable.
"What are we going to do with Dozier?" a fan in the back of the room asked, referencing the All-Star infielder that has been the center of trade rumors throughout the off-season.
"It's something we've heard at every stop," Molitor said. "I don't want to fawn too much over Brian, but he's become one of the better players in the game. His development from an offensive standpoint, the home runs are up each of the last three seasons, a tremendous defender, a smart base runner and a good leader in the clubhouse. I told him, 'When you get your name tossed around in trade rumors, that's a good thing because people want you. You've got a lot of value.'"
Dozier, 29, hit 42 home runs last season and stole 18 bases. That power-and-speed combo is a rare commodity among second basemen, and Dozier's team-friendly contract that runs through 2018 makes him a hot commodity on the trade market.
"I'm planning on him being here," Molitor said. " I know things can change and we'd be foolish not to listen to calls on any of our players. We're trying to get better. But right now I'm counting on Brian being there when Spring Training opens up."
Regardless of whether or not Dozier is in Fort Meyers, Florida, when the Twins hold their first full-team workout on Feb. 19, last season's debacle has not made the Twins shy away from goals of being competitive in 2017.
"We think good baseball is right around the corner," Bremer said.
That task isn't just a tall one for Minnesota, which would likely need at least a 30-win turnaround to reach the postseason in a division featuring the last three American League champions, but a behemoth one. However, Molitor and company made it a point that the Twins, still with a young and talented roster, are not engaging in a full rebuilding process.
"Having to digest the thought of the season we went through was tough for me," Molitor said. "Getting to turn the calendar, and you get to start really focusing on the next chapter. We're excited about the ability we have on this team."
Hope will spring eternal once Spring Training opens up for the Twins, and fans got a sampling of that excitement on Thursday.
In October, Minnesota hired Derrick Falvey as chief baseball officer and Thad Levine as general manager.
"It's a change for the Twins because we've based ourselves on continuity," Molitor said. "But these guys are sharp, intelligent and bring good energy and ideas. We're going to keep doing some of the things we've been really good at, and going to go deeper in some areas where we haven't gone deep enough."
Two of the bright spots from last season were present in Willmar, as well, in right-handers Pressly and Kintzler. Pressly appeared in a team-high 72 games out of the bullpen, posting a 3.70 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings while limiting walks and homers. Kintzler signed as a minor league free agent prior to the season but eventually took over as the closer, posting a 3.15 ERA and saving 17 games.
"I've always had belief in myself that I could pitch in any situation," Kintzler said. "It all just kind of fell into place. [Kevin] Jepsen was kind of struggling at the time and we had a lot of young guys in our bullpen...I was throwing well, and in any professional sport, you have to take advantage of any opportunity. You never know what will happen from there."
The main reason for optimism, however, is the young talent still donning a Twins uniform. Led by über-prospect Byron Buxton in center field, Minnesota boasts under-25 talent in pitcher Jose Berrios, catcher John Ryan Murphy, infielders Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano and outfielders Max Kepler and Danny Santana.
To aid the youthful core in their development, the Twins hired former players LaTroy Hawkins, Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer as special assistants.
"I get excited talking about those guys coming into our organization," Molitor said. "Three of our great players in history, certainly great ambassadors for the game and for the Twins. And they're going to help our guys. They're available, they've got information, they have knowledge."
Time will tell whether or not the Twins' plans will come to fruition, but on Thursday night, the room was full of hope for the near future—Dozier or no Dozier.