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Twinkie Town 2015 Q&A with Rob Antony: Part I

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Jesse's conversation with Twins Assistant General Manager Rob Antony covered a wide array of topics. Part one focuses on the Major League team.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to what has (mostly) been an annual feature on Twinkie Town - our chat with Twins Assistant General Manager Rob Antony. Rob was, as always, very generous with his time in discussing the offseason, expectations for the 2015 season, the organization's fantastic farm system, and the unique situation that the club finds itself in as it maneuvers towards another run of competitive baseball.

Click here to read Part II.

The interview is split into two parts. This first half focuses, for the most part, on issues surrounding the Major League team: offseason moves, perspectives on a number of different players, the challenge of improving a roster when so many talented young guys will be pushing for debuts. The second half, which focuses more on the minor league system, is being transcribed and will be posted tomorrow.

Thanks as always to Rob. Enjoy!

Jesse Lund: We'll start things off by talking about the first move of the offseason, which was signing Torii Hunter. Did you know going into the offseason that he was going to be a priority target?

Rob Antony: Yeah, I think he was a guy that we needed for a variety of reasons. He had a good year last year. I know there were some defensive metrics that said he had struggled some in right field - we believe that he will be fine out there. Obviously when you're 39 and not 29 anymore, he's probably lost a step and all that. But he knows where to play hitters and some of those veteran smarts make up for that.

But also, he would have led our team in RBI last year. 17 home runs would have been one of our leaders. But more than anything it's just the leadership that he brings to our club. He's a guy who comes to the ballpark everyday expecting to win and wants all his teammates in that same mind set. And we haven't really had a vocal leader here for a while, and he's going to bring a lot of that winning attitude to the ballpark and to the clubhouse every day.

JL: So would you say it was a situational signing because of the transitional period that the team is going through at the moment?

RA: Yeah, and I think the timing was right. We didn't have somebody that was knocking on the door at Triple-A that we were trying to find a spot for. So when we traded Josh Willingham, who was in the last year of his three-year deal, it kind of opened the door. And I think Arcia probably fits better in left field than right field, so plugging Torii in made a lot of sense on a lot of different levels like I said.

JL: That signing happened rather quickly as well. Was there a sense of urgency to get him in the door before he explored other pastures, or was this just how things worked out?

RA: I think it's how things worked out. The reason it happened quickly is because there was mutual interest. He felt like there was some unfinished business here, he kept talking about how he felt like Minnesota was always home, and one of the things was he always wanted to be able to finish his career in Minnesota. He doesn't have any interest in playing anywhere else, and whether that leads to another year and another year, who knows. As long as he's productive and wanting to play, I'm not really sure there's a timetable on that. We can address it year-by-year. He signed a one-year deal. Like I said, him wanting to come back and him being a good fit for us led to it moving rather quickly.

JL: When you look at Hunter versus another veteran outfielder on the market like Ichiro Suzuki - why do you go Torii over any of those other guys?

RA: I think because of some of the intangibles he brings and because we believe he still has some good baseball left in him. You can make arguments or cases for different guys; I think Torii was a good fit for us.

When Torii came back for Twins Fest, our fans who came to Twins Fest were as excited about him being here as anybody we could have signed. That's not why we did it - it wasn't a PR move or anything else. But the fact that he is a popular player and that he's very charismatic...he was as excited to be back here and with the fans as they were to have him there.

It's a bit of a unique situation and like I say, I think he brings a lot to the table that some other people don't because of his history here and because of his charisma and just his infectious attitude.

JL: How much of an impact did Paul Molitor have on that signing? Was he looking for that kind of...we all know that Mauer has his own way of leading and like you said Torii is very vocal. Is that something Paul wanted in the clubhouse?

RA: Paul's very familiar with him. Basically we were trying to get better and we think Torii makes us better. It wasn't a matter of "Okay, we're not really sure what this guy can do anymore." He'll be a good leader, a good role model, all that - those are side benefits. We think he can still play as well. Paul was very comfortable in bringing back Torii. He knows him well and Torii knows him, and so they're looking forward to working together.

JL: How's the transition been going, moving from a guy like Gardy who'd been with the organization for so long, to a new guy who's familiar with the organization but hasn't necessarily been one of the clubhouse guys over the last dozen years?

RA: I think he's been pretty smooth. Paul's been here almost every day. He comes in and he's met with different coaches. He's met with Joe Vavra, setting up spring training and kind of tweaking some things of what he wants to change and what he wants to do differently. He's spending a lot of time with our minor league field coordinator, Joel Lepel, to make sure they're on the same page.

He doesn't come up to our offices a bunch, but he's always available and he'll stop in and see what's going on. It's easy to get a hold of him whenever we want to discuss things. Everything we did with Gardy when he was a manager - we've been conversing with Paul to get his thoughts.

He believes he's a fit for what we want to do. We check with a lot of people before we do anything, to get as much background and information on a player as we can to know how they're going to fit in and what kind of teammate and what kind of person they are.

JL: Okay. Well, for the third time in five years the Twins have set a franchise record for the largest contract given to a free agent. Where did the Ervin Santana signing start?

RA: We looked at all of the free agents that were available. We looked at what we had in our system. It could go one of two ways. We could leave spots open and hope that Trevor May or Alex Meyer were ready to jump up and claim one of those spots, or two spots. We could see how Tom Milone does, coming off of...he did not perform well. And he had a neck issue, it took a long time to discover a tumour in his neck that has since been removed.

We would have liked to have done a couple of other things that we weren't able to do, but sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.

Last year, we went out and we signed Nolasco, we signed Hughes, and we spent a good chunk of money to address the starting rotation. Hughes could not have done more. He played out as good as we could have expected. And Nolasco struggled. He had a tough time adjusting and had some injuries and just didn't pitch very well, with the exception of the last month of the season. Kyle Gibson had a pretty good, although inconsistent rookie year - we look for him to take a step forward.

But by getting Santana, I believe that Santana, Hughes, and Gibson give us three solid starters. We're looking for Nolasco to bounce back, hopefully that happens. With his track record there's reason to believe he will.

Then you have Milone battling with May, Meyer, and now Tim Stauffer, and Mike Pelfrey to try and claim one spot. So we think that the rotation should be better. We knew we had to address that.

We were quite pleased with the way the offense produced last year. But if you don't have good starting pitching and they don't give you a chance, you're fighting an uphill battle.

JL: You've touched on a bunch of things I'd like to come back to at some point. Is it correct that the Twins had some designs on Ervin Santana last winter?

RA: Yeah, we did. I had several conversations with his agent and we made him an offer. But at that point I believe he thought it was in his best interest to just do a one-year deal and go back into the free agent market. We've liked him for quite some time. I thought he would be a good fit with us.

JL: What changed in his mind between now and 12 months ago?

RA: I think we actually kind of picked up our conversations. He had a little bit better idea of where his market was. He turned down a one-year qualifying offer from Atlanta and I think he realized at this point in his career that he wanted to sign a multi-year deal. I think he was more apt to do that this year than last year.

I think last year drew out a little bit, and I can't speak for him, but I think it got to the point where it wasn't playing out like he had hoped and he just said "You know what, I'll hit the reset button. I go out and pitch well again and we'll address this thing from the start and maybe take a different approach next year."

JL: Maybe this is just me. Was there anything happening just prior to the Santana trade? I just had a sense that something was up.

RA: ...the Santana trade?

JL: Sorry, the Santana signing.

RA: Oh, okay. Was there anything up?

JL: Yeah. Was there anything happening that ended up not happening?

RA: Yeah, we took a run at some relievers that we had interest in that signed elsewhere. But that was separate and aside from Santana. We were in touch with his people fairly early on in the process, as we were with some other people, but we had him ranked quite high on our board of free agent starters.

We would have liked to have done a couple of other things that we weren't able to do, but sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.

JL: In regards to that - I was reading something that Darren Wolfson had put up coming back from Twins Fest. He said that the Twins thought they had completed a couple of trades that fell through at the last minute when the team chose another offer. What can you get into as far as details on those missed opportunities?

RA: There's not really anything to get into. It wasn't anything major, where we were on the cusp of doing anything big. We had conversations with a few different clubs, and they showed some interest in our players and we exchanged names and those types of things, but it's not unusual for, y'know, it just didn't evolve.

JL: Fair enough. Back to the rotation. You brought up the plethora of names that you have going for the starting rotation this year. With only so many spots in the rotation and so many spots on the 25 and 40-man rosters, how does having all of these guys there affect your flexibility going forward?

RA: I think some of those guys, if they aren't in the rotation, could pitch out of the ‘pen. They could possibly help strengthen our bullpen. Some guys still have options that, if they aren't a fit, they can go back to Rochester, and you never get too deep into the season without needing somebody. So everybody looks at the same way and realizes you have to have depth, and you have to have some guys you can go get.

I believe we're getting to a point where we can go get some guys and feel like we're not really reaching or stretching on whether or not they're prepared.

JL: That's in terms of going to the minor league system and calling up an Alex Meyer or a Trevor May?

RA: Right. If they don't make the big league club, those are two pretty good guys that you could go get. But like I say, there's a chance that they could make the big league club. Y'know, if we run into a situation where we don't see somebody being a fit, there's always the possibility of moving some guys or juggling some things around.

JL: In terms of making the team better, the Twins have been very forward about saying the pitching needs to get better. But in terms of the pitching, is there concern that - and I'm sure you've heard this before - is there a concern that the outfield defense won't necessarily be doing the pitching any favors?

RA: It depends on how our defense shakes out. Obviously Oswaldo Arcia has some room to improve in the outfield. He was just fair out there last year. I think Torii's going to be fine out in right field.

You hope that [Hicks] evolves into that guy. But going into camp and into the season, it's not a given. Rosario has the ability to play center. So does Schafer. So does Robinson. I think all three of those guys can handle the job defensively.

In center field it would be great if Aaron Hicks could come in and win that job and be a guy that we could plug into the lineup every day and patrol center field. But he has to be able to contribute offensively as well, and become a well-rounded player if he's going to be an everyday player. So we have an opportunity or the ability to play him, even if it's a platoon in center with Schafer or with Shane Robinson, who I think is going to come in and compete for a spot. I don't think Eddie Rosario is too far away.

So we have some guys that, y'know, while we might not run three guys out there that cover as much ground as some other clubs, at the same time I don't think it's far off from some guys being out there that can cover ground. If it's an outfield of Arcia, Hicks, and Hunter, I think we're fairly comfortable there.

JL: Right now, is Hicks the guy you're looking at to take center field?

RA: Well, he's been given an opportunity a couple times. And he's won the job out of spring training and not been able to hold onto it. You hope that he evolves into that guy. But going into camp and into the season, it's not a given. Rosario has the ability to play center. So does Schafer. So does Robinson. I think all three of those guys can handle the job defensively.

JL: Looking at some of the younger players who you hope are going to be franchise cornerstones going forward, what kind of steps forward did Brian Dozier take in his leadership and how has his role evolved?

RA: I think he's become one of the true leaders on this club, and I think he's become more of a confident player. I think he settled in very well. He was a very good defensive second baseman for us last year. He handled that transition the year before from short to second and he did everything we wanted defensively.

He showed a little power. I think he got a little inconsistent and he's a streaky guy where I would say he probably had four good months, one okay month, and one probably not-so-good month. He needs to strive to be that consistent guy that gives us six months of production that you can count on.

I think he still has room to grow and improve. I'm not saying he's going to, y'know, be a 30-home run guy or a 100-RBI guy, but I do believe he's a good offensive second baseman and definitely a quality defender.

JL: Do you get jealous of his hair?

RA: (Laughs) No, but I know he's a fan favourite here for a lot of reasons.

JL: Including the hair.

RA: Including the hair. The flow doesn't hurt at all.

Brian Dozier VDay Card

JL: With Eduardo Escobar, he seems like a bit of a luxury at this point. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but with Trevor Plouffe at third base and Danny Santana at short and Dozier at second base, was there any sense of "Maybe we can move Escobar for help in other areas?"

RA: I think we would look at all things that would make this club better. Some people look at it as a luxury, I tend to look at it as you're a much better team. Good teams have players like this who could maybe start for other teams. And that's when you know you're starting to turn the corner a little bit.

Say Danny Santana does win the shortstop job. You want to give him a day off or Plouffe a day off or Dozier a day off, you're not losing a ton when you throw Escobar in there. And you probably want to play him as much as you can so he stays sharp and you get the production he gave us last year.

One thing I didn't talk about because going into spring training we're looking at Santana as our shortstop. But if Escobar goes in and we determine we're a better team with Escobar at short and Santana in center field, that's something we can revisit. But right now, to answer the Escobar question, I just think that when you have some depth like that and you don't have a bit drop-off, it's more than a luxury. It makes you a deeper and better team.

JL: Do you believe it's a possibility for Aaron Hicks to start the year in Triple-A?

RA: Yeah, it's possible. If he doesn't come in and win that job and look like he's ready to contribute at the Major League level, then he could be sent back. I hope that's not the case.

JL: Danny Santana was a bit of a god-send last year, playing all over the diamond and playing as well as he did. I'm not sure if there's a desire to stick him into one position so he learns and is more comfortable with one position, or if the team is very comfortable in moving him around and play different spots. What's his outlook defensively?

RA: Ideally we'd like to get him back on his natural position, which is shortstop. We've got Hicks out there, that was still have belief in and hope for. Buxton is not all that far away. I think we have center fielders that are either about ready or nearly ready, and I think Santana has a chance...

I don't think [Mauer] was able to condition himself and do everything he wanted to, just due to wanting to make sure everything was fine with the concussion that ended his 2013 season.

What was really impressive for me was watching what he did offensively last year while playing a different position that was a foreign position to him. Playing out in center field and then every once in a while getting dropped back in at short, that's a difficult thing. When you can go and practice your position every day you're going to grow, you're going to improve, and you're going to become much more reliable and consistent, and he didn't have that opportunity last year. So for him to perform offensively as well as he did and essentially playing out of position was pretty impressive.

By and large we would like to have him at shortstop. But Escobar did everything we could have asked of him. We have some options there.

JL: You've got a couple of potentially big bats in the middle of the lineup in Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas. Is Vargas going to be your opening day designated hitter? I'm asking you for a call. Right here, right now.

RA: I hope so. But at the same time he needs to come in and he needs to be in shape and he needs to be ready to play. He needs to make sure he gets after it like he did when he came up here last year. There have been a lot of players who have had later season recalls who have come up and been lights out. You get excited, you bank on them. And then they don't repeat that performance or they never live up to it.

I don't believe that's going to be the case with Kennys Vargas, but he does need to come in and not take anything for granted and earn that position. But everything being equal, I hope he does win the starting DH job and get 600-plus at-bats for us next year.

JL: With Josmil Pinto having such a fantastic minor league career, how do you get him at-bats when he's playing behind Kurt Suzuki - who was All-Star last year? How do you get Pinto into the lineup?

RA: Number one, he only hit .219 last year. And he did some things well. He still has room to improve. I think if he's your number two catcher, and if he's playing two days a week catching and if you mix in a day or two with him getting DH at-bats, I think that's probably the scenario right now. If something happened to Kurt and you had to plug Pinto in to play more, I believe he could do that - be he does need to work on his defense. I don't believe he threw a runner out last year.

JL: No, he didn't.

RA: And his defense regressed from the previous year. He needs to get back and work on his fundamentals and he needs to work on his game preparation. There are a lot of things that, if he would just follow Kurt Suzuki around, he would learn a lot about preparing for games and preparing to be an everyday catcher. I think he needs to do that.

JL: Is that something Pinto is willing to do - be an understudy for a guy like Suzuki?

RA: I think he's fine with that, I think he just wants to be in the big leagues. He wants an opportunity. He wants to hit. But he needs to understand that he needs to take the defense seriously, especially at that position.

JL: Joe Mauer last year had a bit of a down season. Was that down to bad luck? Preparation? Was there anything nagging that was holding him back?

RA: It's a good question. I don't know that I have the answer to that. I know he had a few things that, probably as much as anything, I don't think he was able to prepare for last season like he wanted to. He got out from behind the plate, which was great for him, as far as the legs and everything. But I don't think he was able to condition himself and do everything he wanted to, just due to wanting to make sure everything was fine with the concussion that ended his 2013 season.

I don't think he had the offseason he wanted to have last year. I think he's much more confident that he's ready to go this year, because he's had no side effects, no issues. He can have a normal offseason. He's been working hard to be in shape and to be ready to go. He's been swinging the bat earlier than he has in the past.

I just think he had a very un-Mauer like season last year, and I look for him to bounce back and be much more like the Joe we're accustomed to seeing.

JL: He's always been my favorite player, so I agree with you in hoping that he does better. Moving back to the rotation, I wanted to cover one more thing. With the Hughes extension - did he approach you, or did you approach him with the idea?

RA: They approached us, and told us they would be receptive. We exchanged some different ideas. They were very realistic in terms of what they were looking for, and I think the way the market is and what a guy like that is worth, it made sense for us to try and do something. I believe he's just reaching his peak and I think he's going to be a solid, valuable, durable guy for us for the next five years.

It was an opportunity for us to sign a guy that, if you wait a year and he's just a year away from free agency, and he backs up last year with a similar year this year, the numbers...the potential is out there for much, much greater dollars. So we took advantage of an opportunity. It made sense for him - he got security, he wanted to stay here, he wanted to be a guy we were building our rotation around, and be a veteran leader. It worked for both sides and it was a sane deal for both sides.

JL: That's a fun way of putting it - "It was a sane deal for both sides."

RA: (Laughs)

JL: Taking a step back for a moment, heading into the Twins offseason the way I looked at it was - the Twins were in a very difficult position. Because you have this fantastic minor league system with a handful of guys, half a dozen guys, who could potentially be ready at some point during 2015. To make the team better without blocking players, it's a very difficult line to straddle. Can you talk to me a bit about your offseason blueprint and how you approached that kind of situation?

RA: Well, number one I agree 100% with you. That's one of the challenges you face when your top prospects start to rise into that Double-A and Triple-A level. You don't want to block guys off. And we were trying to find the right balance because we want to compete in 2015, we want to improve.

We've had four miserable seasons. We don't want to lose our fans.

We've had four miserable seasons. We don't want to lose our fans. And we've had tremendous support. So we want to put a team out there that's competitive and can take us in the right direction. We like our farm system. It's great and we've received a lot of accolades the last week or two, and we believe in our players. But at the same time you don't want to bring them up and -

You can go one of two ways. You can try to be competitive, try to acquire some other players - I don't think we went deep or long-term with anybody we didn't believe was going to be part of turning this thing around this year and in years to come. The other route you can go is to strip it down, start moving people and reserving a spot for May, Meyer, Berrios might be ready by the end of the year, and all of a sudden you don't go get a Santana and you didn't go get Nolasco. And that was last year. Basically, we wanted to have some veteran guys so that these younger guys could not be under pressure that they've got to carry the load, they've got to be an ace.

Hopefully they can come in and be ready to contribute. And that's all they have to do - be a contributor, carry their own weight, and then they can evolve into the guys we hope they can be, whether that a starter like May, Meyer, and Berrios, or a position player like Rosario, Sano, and Buxton and some others.

JL: When you look at how the organization was built, at both the Major and Minor League levels, do you have a timeline? "Right, 2016, we want to be much more competitive. 2017, we want to compete for a division title." Do you get that specific?

RA: I would say, just like players you go into each season with goals. I would be very disappointed if we're not competitive this year. If we're not hanging around and in this thing and feeling good about ourselves. And hopefully we get over that .500 mark.

In 2016, I believe we should be a team that's fighting for a playoff spot.

I think a lot of people look at it and go "Geez, you won 70 games last year and now you think there's going to be a 12-game improvement? In one year that might be tough." I think last year we underachieved. I felt we should have won 76/77 games. So to say that we should get over .500 this year, I don't think that's a major thing. I think we ought to be able to improve five, six, seven games over last year. I look at it as what we should have won rather than what we did win.

I hope that's not unrealistic. I don't think it is. But I think 2015 should be a year where we're competitive and in the mix and guys take steps forward. In 2016, I believe we should be a team that's fighting for a playoff spot.

JL: I think you raised an interesting idea there of process versus results. Obviously the results haven't been what anyone's wanted over the last four years, but in terms of process, how have things changed since the team has gone through what you might dub "The Dark Ages" - the first dark age since the 90s.

RA: I would say we had a rejuvenation in guys like Torii Hunter and A.J. Pierzynski and Corey Koskie - and I don't want to leave out guys, Jacque Jones. There were so many of them that they really helped put us back on the map. They came in and they were the guys that nobody gave a chance to, and all of a sudden, every year, we do out there, we compete, and we were getting into the playoffs. We were winning divisions. People didn't believe it - every year they'd pick somebody else to win it, and we'd be right there in the mix.

I think the development, the type of team we need to be, isn't the type of team that goes out to sign three, four, five free agents every year. That's a recipe for disaster for us. We need to be able to draft and develop our own players, and have them be the core, the nucleus, and then we go sign a free agent to fill in areas where we need help rather than trying to rely on free agency.

I would say over the last four, five years with our minor league system we've done a good job of drafting players, signing international players, and our player development has done a good job developing those players, so that we're getting to the point where we can infuse the Major League club. And you hope to plug in a couple guys every year. We're getting to the point where we should be able to plug in guys that have a chance to be impact guys, rather than role players.

JL: I think that's a good transition point to move to the minor league system...

That's 5,118 words on the Major League team, its players, and some of the philosophy behind the decisions made by the front office. The second half of my interview with Antony, which focuses almost entirely on Minnesota's minor league system, is being transcribed and will post tomorrow.

Click here to read Part II.