The Minnesota Twins conduct spring training only 6 miles from the Red Sox in Fort Myers, a straight shot down Daniels Parkway.
The weather is the same, but the environment has always seemed different. The Twins last won a playoff series in 2002 and have had only two winning seasons over the last eight years. Their payroll last season was nearly $100 million less than the Sox.
The Red Sox start every season with the World Series as their goal. The Twins have long operated on the treadmill of hoping to be competitive.
But there is a clear sense of change at Hammond Stadium this year, and two New Englanders have helped make it happen.
When chief baseball officer Derek Falvey hired Rocco Baldelli as manager, it represented a significant shift for the franchise.
Tom Kelly, who was the third base coach, became manager in 1986, won two World Series in 16 years, then handed the team over to his third base coach, Ron Gardenhire.
Gardenhire lasted 13 years before the Twins hired Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, one of Kelly’s best players and a St. Paul native, to manage for four more seasons. That’s 33 consecutive seasons of staying in-house.
Baldelli has no connection to the Twins. That didn’t matter to Falvey, who grew up in Lynn. His aim was to change the way the team operated, not adhere to tradition.
“There was a change in leadership when they hired me,” said Falvey, an executive with the Indians who was hired by the Twins in 2016. “We brought in people from the outside, coaches and staff. We wanted a different perspective and different ideas.
“No question, when we hired Rocco, it was about the type of environment we wanted and how he would lead. That’s reflected in what we’re seeing in camp. It’s the early going but we’ve been purposely efficient but always having fun.”
The 37-year-old Baldelli, who is from Woonsocket, R.I., is the youngest manager in baseball. But he had a wide range of experience as a player, scout, coach, and player development executive.
Baldelli, who played for Terry Francona, Lou Piniella, and Joe Maddon at different points of his career, wants to blend the lessons of their experience with a willingness to look at the game from a modern perspective.
“At least be open to a conversation,” he said. “Truthfully, the communication between staff and players becomes probably the most important thing that we have on our side. Just sitting down and having the conversation is appreciated by everyone.”
The Twins are more interesting than you would expect for a team that finished 78-84 last season.
They landed first baseman C.J. Cron on a waiver claim, then signed designated hitter Nelson Cruz, super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop. The four new players added a modest $36.8 million to the payroll as calculated for luxury-tax purposes.
That quartet hit 104 home runs last season, important for a team that finished 12th in the American League with only 166 in 2018.
“We wanted to supplement the lineup we had and bring some leadership to the clubhouse,” Falvey said. “Nelson Cruz expressed a desire in us and we saw him as a great fit in terms of performance and what he brings to the clubhouse.”
Michael Pineda will join the rotation after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. It’s also reasonable to expect better from third baseman Miguel Sano, a 2017 All-Star who had a .679 OPS last season and played only 71 games because of injuries and conditioning problems.
That Sano has his left foot in a walking boot because of a cut on his heel and hasn’t played yet isn’t a good sign. But the injury is not expected to linger.
Center fielder Byron Buxton, who received MVP votes in 2017, played only 28 games last season. After being on the injured list, Buxton was optioned to Triple A July 2 and he finished out the season there.
If healthy — and emotionally invested — Buxton and Sano have the talent to turn the Twins into instant contenders, especially in the weak AL Central.
A lineup with Buxton, Cruz, Gonzalez, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Schoop, and Sano could be dangerous and challenge the Indians.
Baldelli agreed, but he is being cautious.
“More than anything else, we’ve asked our guys not to look too far ahead,” he said. “We’re going to focus on what we’re doing today. Part of our initial message was be better and learn something, think about something differently today than you did yesterday.
“I think we have a really talented ball club. We have a really fun, exciting team.”
Added Falvey: “The way I look at it, until you knock out the champs, they’re the champs. I have a healthy respect for the Indians. But we know how good our team could be. We could compete for the division or the wild card.”
The belief is Baldelli can tap the potential of the roster much the way Alex Cora did with the Red Sox.
“It was very apparent that the Red Sox team came together very well, and that starts with Alex and the [coaching] staff setting the tone, setting expectations,” Baldelli said.
“That was one of the best ball clubs that I’ve seen on the field, both talent-wise and the way that they came together. If you weren’t competing against them, you’d probably say it was a beautiful thing to watch.”
Baldelli is analytically inclined and, ideally, the players will understand why the Twins may change how they play. But that doesn’t necessarily matter.
“We want the messages to be simple,” he said. “We want our guys to focus on preparation and maybe be open-minded to thinking about things and their mind-set.
“One of the goals is to just let the players play and for us to put them in a great spot and not clutter up their minds with too many things. That’s the best way to go about things.”
HITTING CLOSE TO HOME
Some thoughts on the Red Sox
1. They would never admit to this, but Alex Cora and the starting pitchers clearly have a plan to boost the confidence of Eduardo Rodriguez.
Every time Rodriguez has pitched this spring, even just a bullpen session, the other starters have been there to watch and offer encouragement afterward.
Cora also has made it a point to praise Rodriguez every time his name has come up.
Don’t misunderstand; the emotions are genuine and Rodriguez has looked sharp on the mound. He’s stronger physically, too.
But there’s also an element of wanting the 25-year-old to understand just how important he is to the team.
Rodriguez has yet to make more than 24 starts in a season, an injury always getting in the way of his progress. For too long he’s been more potential than performance.
Last season — 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA over 129⅔ innings — was a sign of what Rodriguez is capable of. Now the Sox are trying to push him over the line.
Rodriguez said the plaudits haven’t added any pressure.
“Everybody can say whatever they want,” he said. “I just want to go out there and do my job. If I’m doing good, everybody will keep saying I’m doing good. If I’m going bad, you know how it is. My job is to get people out.”
If Rodriguez can establish himself as a reliable No. 3 starter, it makes the pending free agency of Chris Sale and Rick Porcello much easier to handle.
2. Young power hitters Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec are in a competition, whether they know it or not.
As the Red Sox consider contract extensions for Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and others, they will need some spots in the lineup that are cheaper.
Third base will be one if Rafael Devers performs as expected. First base can be another in 2020. Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce will make a combined $12.75 million this season, then become free agents. If Chavis or Dalbec can play there next season, the cost drops to the MLB minimum of approximately $555,000.
Chavis has played 12 games at first base in his professional career and Dalbec five. They’re about to get a lot more.
3. J.D. Martinez has the right to opt out of the final three years of his contract after this season. But will a 32-year-old player who is essentially a DH give up a guaranteed $62.45 million to test a free agent market that has been quicksand for hitters over 30?
4. This surprised me. A full playoff share for a Red Sox player was $416,837, and a Patriots player received only $118,000 for winning the Super Bowl. Yes, there are more baseball playoff games and more players on a football team. But $118,000 isn’t much considering how profitable the Super Bowl is.
5. Tony Renda on being around the Sox a second season: “This is an extremely humble group. It’s the same group of guys who won the Series but they don’t take themselves seriously. Steve Pearce was the World Series MVP. He could walk around this clubhouse like a big shot but he’s the nicest guy in the world. Mookie [Betts] was MVP of the league and he’s still a humble kid. They’re all incredibly grounded.”
6. Ownership has made it clear it wants to retain Sale and there have been at least preliminary discussions with Bogaerts and Betts. What about Porcello?
Porcello is 50-28 with a 3.99 ERA the last three seasons with an adjusted ERA of 112. He’s not an ace, but he’s comfortably in the upper echelon of American League starters.
He’s a team leader, handles Boston seamlessly, and has been relentlessly reliable, making every start for three years running. Porcello, 30, also has adapted how he pitches, shifting from heavy reliance on his sinker to a more varied attack. It’s a profile that suggests he can be effective into his mid-30s.
Two or three years and a mutual option? There’s a deal to be made here.
7. Eduardo Nunez beat out an infield hit against the Orioles Wednesday and an inning later made a quick move to his right to grab a hard-hit ball at second base.
Nunez struggled with plays like that last season because of lingering soreness in his right knee. But that seems to have abated.
“I have that step back and I can get to the ball going away from me,” Nunez said. “I feel like myself.”
The defense is what it is with Nunez. But his return to form offensively would be a significant boost.
Enough already with gimmicks
MLB has taken the threat of a 20-second pitch clock off the table until 2022 in the hopes the Players Association will agree to a package of other rules changes.
■ Pitchers must face at least three hitters.
■ A 26-man roster with maximum of 13 pitchers.
■ A 28-man roster in September with a maximum of 14 pitchers.
■ Five mound visits per nine innings in 2019, four in 2020.
■ One trade deadline on July 31.
■ Position players may pitch only after the ninth inning or after the sixth inning when their team trails by seven runs.
Several of these make perfect sense and would improve the game. A 26-man roster, if that’s what appeases the Players Association by creating 30 more jobs, is fine. But September baseball has to be fixed in return.
Expanded rosters are ruinous. Teams have an endless supply of relievers and pinch runners and the game fundamentally changes. That important games are contested with teams having different numbers of players is ridiculous and always has been.
Either cap the rosters at 28 or have teams designate 28 active players before the start of a series.
One trade deadline also makes sense. But make it Aug. 15.
Reduced mound visits already have improved the pace of the game. Cutting them further can only help.
Regulating when position players can pitch seems pointless. Usually it’s actually fun to watch.
A rule mandating how a relief pitcher must be used for three batters is going too far. Taking late-inning strategy out of the game is a bad idea and will only serve to annoy people who are already fans, not draw in any new ones.
Many teams are already getting away from carrying a lefty specialist because it’s an inefficient use of the roster. That doesn’t have to be a rule.
MLB also should look into ways to speed up replay reviews. The umpires waste too much time walking over to talk on that phone-in-a-bag contraption. Have a fifth umpire in the press box handle the communication and move the process along.
Too many managers also challenge calls late in games for no good reason other than they have a challenge left to use. The spirit of the rule, which was to get obviously missed calls right, has been lost.
Chatted with two National League scouts this past week and asked why Craig Kimbrel remains a free agent. One mentioned his poor pitching in the postseason and the other what he perceived as fading command. The pure stuff is still there, he said, but not the ability to keep it in the strike zone. Both said Kimbrel was shooting too high in seeking a $100 million contract and that teams have learned that investing so much in a closer is foolish. That Kimbrel prefers only to be used in the ninth inning has hurt his marketability, too . . . Hanley Ramirez is in Indians camp on a minor league deal. Ramirez was 21 when he made his major league debut for Terry Francona in 2005. Now he’s 35 and hoping to play for Francona again . . . Nationals ace Max Scherzer on Bryce Harper’s $330 million deal: “You have to look at the structure of baseball. Why is it taking so long for teams to engage on free agents? We’re opening up camp and we’re still waiting for marquee free agents to sign. Something’s wrong. That shouldn’t happen.” . . . That the White Sox struck out on both Harper and Manny Machado isn’t much of surprise. The largest deal they’ve ever given out was $68 million for Jose Abreu . . . Nick Cafardo would want me to mention that Lee Tinsley turns 50 on Monday and Rubby De La Rosa will be 30. Thank you to everybody who e-mailed, called, texted, or reached out through social media to express condolences about Nick. He can’t be replaced but we’ll do our best.