Twins build Culture Club with five low-cost veterans
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Speaking to a group of Twins season-ticket holders in late November, newly hired general manager Thad Levine offered a philosophy and a prediction.
"A concern of mine looking at this team is I'm not sure who the leaders were last year," he told said. "You can have leadership in the front office, you can have leadership in the coaching staff, but if you don't have leadership in the clubhouse I think it's a real challenge to navigate 162 games, especially with the amount of youth we've had on this team."
To that point, the Twins' only free-agent signing had been former all-star catcher Jason Castro, spirited away from the Houston Astros for $24.5 million over three years. Starting in mid-January, however, Levine and chief baseball officer Derek Falvey added a handful of veterans with reputations as clubhouse leaders. None broke the bank.
Reliever Matt Belisle, secured on a one-year deal at $2.05 million, was the most expensive. Four others came on board via minor-league deals with big-league salaries, should they be added to the 40-man roster, ranging from $950,000 (catcher Chris Gimenez) to $1.25 million for left-handed reliever Craig Breslow.
They also made a strong push to land 34-year-old first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli. According to FanRag.com, the Twins were willing to pay him $11 million for one season or $16 million over two years before he took a one-year, $8.5 million deal (with a club option) to return for a third tour of duty with the Texas Rangers, Levine's former club.
"You may see a signing where you may scratch your head and say, 'Why did these guys spend this kind of money on that player at this stage of his career?'" Levine told those Twins fans. "I assure you it's probably because this guy, in our opinion, has a chance to be a leader in the clubhouse."
Here's a player-by-player look at the five low-cost veterans the Twins signed as spring training neared. You might call them the Culture Club:
Ryan Vogelsong, RHP
A two-time World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants, the 39-year-old swingman signed a $1 million deal with up to $2.5 million iN incentives should he spend all year in the rotation.
Along the way, he is expected to mentor younger Twins pitchers.
"I do enjoy it," Vogelsong said. "It's part of the transition as you go through your career. I had really good veteran guys when I was coming up that did the same thing for me with the Giants."
Breaking in at age 22 in 2000, Vogelsong leaned heavily on the likes of Mark Gardner, Robb Nen, Kirk Rueter and Shawn Estes.
"I was the youngest guy by a lot," he said. "The whole team was outstanding as far as trying to teach me how to be a big-leaguer and what it took to be successful. Really, it was the whole team that took me in like a little brother. That makes doing what I'm doing now a lot easier because I learned from some really good guys."
What does veteran leadership mean to him now?
"A lot of it is showing (teammates) how you should do things and how things get done to be successful," he said. "You develop relationships with people as the spring goes along, but to start with it's just doing things the way I always do them, which is the way I was taught, and doing them the right way and being prepared."
Drew Stubbs, OF
A former College World Series hero drafted eighth overall in 2006, the fleet outfielder has bounced to his fifth different organization in the past 19 months.
Should Stubbs, 32, be added to the big-league roster, he would be paid $1 million, well below the $5.8 million he made with the Colorado Rockies in 2015. Intent on re-establishing himself and proving his worth, Stubbs embraces the chance to be a resource for younger Twins.
"I think a lot of the gratification that coaches get from helping a kid out is that you see them grow and mature and progress in their skill set and in their career," Stubbs said. "Just knowing you helped them take a step in that direction is pretty gratifying for yourself."
The first-ever draft pick of former Cincinnati Reds GM Wayne Krivsky, back with the Twins since late 2011 in a front-office role, Stubbs starred at the University of Texas and played with Twins special assistants Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins in Colorado in 2014-15.
Stubbs also has recent history with Falvey's Cleveland Indians (2013) and Levine's Rangers (2015-16).
"I think they know who I am as a person already, and what my character is," Stubbs said. "Now it's just up to me to go do my thing on the field and see where it shakes out."
Matt Belisle, RHP
Given the second-largest guarantee to a Twins free agent this winter, Belisle also has history with the Rockies, where he spent six seasons (2009-14) developing the mental toughness it takes to pitch at altitude.
"Colorado really provided me with a great opportunity to learn about myself," said Belisle, 36. "I really got to hone in on my blueprint, my on-the-field feel for pitching, but also my program off the field. There were some challenges for me, but I looked at it as an opportunity every time. I enjoyed that challenge."
Young Twins pitchers watching Belisle this spring will see a fitness fanatic with an easy smile and a story for every situation. Thriving at Coors Field provided many of those for the former highly touted starting prospect.
"You talk about the ballpark, but there's tough ballparks to pitch in all over the dang league," he said. "Physically and mentally, it's just all the things you have to do. I enjoyed trying to get better, that's all."
As for influencing the Twins' clubhouse culture, Belisle looks forward to it.
"We all have to be examples. We've got to do this together," he said. "This is not a one- or two- or three-man show to change the culture. This is a collective group that first wants to win and is grounded by solid people and good individuals."
Craig Breslow, LHP
Back with the Twins after they lost him on waivers eight years ago, the 36-year-old reliever teamed with Napoli on the 2013 Boston Red Sox that won the World Series. He chose to sign with the Twins from a group of eight to 10 suitors last month.
"The idea at this stage of my career that I could impact an organization for longer than I may be playing for it is pretty powerful and pretty compelling," Breslow said. "I've started to think about all of the players who have helped shape my career. I certainly look to them with incredible deference. If I have the opportunity to fill that role for somebody, it's a legacy I would be really proud of."
A Yale graduate who used advanced analytics to remake his delivery, Breslow counts former closers Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan and Koji Uehara among his greatest mentors. He also sees himself as a willing translator for a Twins organization attempting to better integrate data into clubhouse.
"There's currently a disconnect between the analytics department and the execution among the players," he said of the game in general. "Certainly the most important thing is for me to get people out. I recognize that. I could be a great guy off the field and people could really like spending time with me, but if I'm not helping the team there's not a place for me on the field."
In conversations with Falvey, Breslow was impressed with the suggestion a talented young core could take a huge step forward with the help of veterans.
"I think that's a pretty significant realization for someone in the front office," he said. "In an era where it becomes easy to get bogged down in data and numbers, recognizing the human element in this and human interaction, I give Derek a lot of credit."
Chris Gimenez, C
Outgoing and perpetually upbeat, Gimenez, 34, was a key part of the Indians' run to their first American League pennant in 19 years last fall.
Having bounced between the Indians and Rangers multiple times in recent seasons, he was maybe the surest bet of all to join Falvey and Levine in their new venture.
"I'm a big believer in clubhouse culture," Gimenez said. "That's something we had in Cleveland. My entire career in Cleveland we had it. I think last year it was a little different because Nap brought not only the playoff experience, the veteran leadership, but the idea that, 'Hey, we need to get over this hump.' "
In particular, a young pitching staff that included Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar took several steps forward.
"I think for a long time in Cleveland it was, 'There's always going to be next year. We're going to be good next year,' " Gimenez said. "I think it took somebody like Nap coming in to really kick some of those younger veteran guys in the butt and let them know, 'Hey, we're a good team. We could do this. ... Let's do it now.' "
The result was nearly a third World Series ring for manager Terry Francona.
"I think a lot of guys started really believing in that, and look what happened," Gimenez said. "It's amazing, when you get a little bit of confidence and everybody starts believing in themselves, what can happen. You need that edge. If you believe, funny things can happen."