If it’s not the Yankees, managerial hires usually get little national fanfare, and they happen when most baseball fans are fully invested in the postseason. As a result, SI’s MLB staff will be introducing you to the six new faces in charge of MLB franchises. Of the six openings that occurred at season’s end, only the Orioles have yet to fill their vacancy. Next up: Rocco Baldelli
Previous editions: Brad Ausmus (Angels)
Who did he replace?
Paul Molitor, the 2017 AL Manager of the Year. Molitor alternated between surprising and disappointing in his four years with the Twins. He led Minnesota to its first winning record in five years in 2015, then lost an MLB-worst 103 games a year later. The Twins stunningly bounced back and secured an AL Wild Card berth in 2017, hence the award for Molitor, before once again underwhelming this season. His firing was as a surprise to many.
Who did he beat out?
The other two finalists for the job were Twins bench coach Derek Shelton and Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde, according to The Athletic’s Dan Hayes. The Twins’ decision-making duo of GM Thad Levine and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey elected not to go with the in-house candidate (though Shelton will be brought back in the same role) or Hyde, choosing the youngest option with the least coaching experience.
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Playing career stats
Baldelli had a promising career cut short by a rare muscular disorder that caused frequent injuries. Drafted sixth overall by Tampa Bay in 2000, the centerfielder finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2003 and was a budding star with all five tools. However, injuries caused by the disorder forced him to miss the entirety of 2005 and chunks of every season until he retired in January 2011. He is beloved by Rays fans for his big hits in the 2008 ALCS. Baldelli hit .278 with 60 homers and 60 steals in 519 career games.
Upon retiring, Baldelli joined the Rays’ front office as a Special Assistant for Baseball Operations for the 2011 season. Four years later, new manager Kevin Cash added Baldelli to his staff as the first base coach. The Rays created a new role for Baldelli last season: major-league field coordinator. He was third in command behind Cash and bench coach Charlie Montoyo (the new Blue Jays manager who will be featured in this series soon) during games, was charged with implementing ideas and coordinated the outfield defense, per Marc Topkin. The Rays won 90 games in 2018 behind an analytically-savvy approach highlighted by their pioneering use of the “opener.”
What to Expect
It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from a first-time manager who is just 37 years old (making him the youngest managerial hire since AJ Hinch in 2009). Baldelli fits with the recent trend of teams hiring young former players with an open minds toward analytics. Falvey and Levine used the word “partner” to describe what they were looking for during their search, suggesting that they wanted someone who would work closely with them to continue to bring the Twins into the 21st century. Baldelli’s time with the Rays, a franchise that has been ahead of the curve this decade, undoubtedly increased his allure. In his introductory press conference, Baldelli gave an encouraging quote on analytics.
Baldelli’s role is to be the bridge between the front office and the players. His personality was a factor in his hiring; by all accounts, Baldelli is a likable, highly communicative guy. If he can build trust within the clubhouse, he’ll be in a good position to take information from the Twins’ research and development staff and verbalize it to players in order to implement it on the field. The idea is that if you have a personable guy who is well-respected in the locker room and truly believes in analytical information and its benefits, he will be able to get to the team to buy in. Molitor was no curmudgeon, which he showed by embracing things like defensive shifts and using an opener, but Baldelli’s youth and personality should bring a different dynamic to the clubhouse.
Because Baldelli has never had this job at any level, we won’t know what his tendencies are as an in-game manager until the 2019 season kicks off next spring. Baldelli still has several spots to fill on his staff before then, including pitching coach. For now, it’s important to remember that the Twins hired him to do far more than fill out a lineup card and make bullpen decisions. He’ll be counted on to unite everyone in the organization towards the task of winning baseball games. Still, the on-field role is important, and it will be fascinating to see how his personality and approach translate to the bench. Will he be fiery? Laid-back? Will he embrace the opener? We’ll find out soon enough.
Baldelli inherits a situation in Minnesota that remains promising despite a plethora of uncertainties. His most challenging and important task will be to help salvage the potential of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sanó, the two players who came up in 2015 and were supposed to be franchise saviors have floundered through inconsistent and injury-prone starts to their MLB careers. Buxton was once the consensus top prospect in baseball, a shoo-in future star who drew comparisons to some of the game’s best outfielders. He’s now played in parts of four seasons and that luster has all but worn off. Buxton’s league-best defense and speed on the basepaths have been everything they were advertised to be, but he just hasn’t been able to hit consistently. He’s slashing an appalling .230/.285/.387 with a career 31.7% strikeout rate. He’s had a few good stretches, including a 2017 second half in which he hit .300/.347/.546 and garnered MVP votes. Given his defensive ability, if Buxton ever puts it together at the plate for a full season he’ll be one of the most valuable players in baseball.
Sanó is a similar case, albeit without the MVP potential. He flashed his otherworldly power frequently during his first three years, but his problems rose to the surface in a disastrous 2018 season. Like Buxton, Sano simply struggles to make contact. There have been questions about his work ethic caused by a tendency to show up to spring training out of shape. Whether he can remain at third base is another question. Again, the potential for greatness is still there. Buxton and Sanó are just 24 and 25, respectively, and the Twins have a number of other young pieces that inspire optimism. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and José Berrios are all 25 or younger. Eddie Rosario just turned 27 and was a star in the first half of 2018. With the contracts of Joe Mauer, Ervin Santana and Brian Dozier off the books, the Twins will have the money to pursue several impact free agents this winter. Minnesota’s farm system is arguably one of the best in baseball, led by a pair of top-10 prospects in Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff.
Should fans be excited?
Absolutely. Ever since he was hired, Baldelli has come across as the perfect manager to complement Falvey and Levine and help make the Twins a consistent winner. He’s a razor-sharp guy who embraces analytics and will be able to relate to a young clubhouse. He can’t do it all himself, of course; the Twins’ front office needs to have a much better offseason than last year’s Logan Morrison and Lance Lynn debacle. But Baldelli appears ready for the challenge of turning this thing around. For those concerned about his age, just remember: the last time Minnesota hired a manager this young, 36-year old Tom Kelly took over in 1986 and won two World Series titles in six years.