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Twinkie Town 2016 Q&A with Rob Antony: Part I

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Welcome to the transcript of Jesse's visit with Twins Assistant General Manager Rob Antony. Byung Ho Park, Paul Molitor, Ricky Nolasco, Jose Berrios, Joe Mauer, and a great deal more will be covered within.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

During our conversation, Twins Assistant General Manager Rob Antony and I covered a great deal of ground. We discussed the acquisitions of Byung Ho Park and John Ryan Murphy, but also the evolution of Paul Molitor as a manager, the benefits of a worldwide draft, taking advantage of the current CBA during the international signing period, and a number of player-specific points of interest before I turned the questions over to our community for their opportunity to have a member of the Twins front office address their thoughts. Enjoy reading, and thanks once again to Rob for his time.

This in a long read, so I've given you an option to take a breather. Before you start, please get yourself a drink and a snack. When you're ready, proceed to Part II.

Jesse Lund: Congratulations on a fantastic 2015 season. Last year when we spoke you’d said that you thought the 2014 team was actually a 76 or 77-win team instead of a 70-win club. You thought that team underachieved and you thought the 2015 team could be around .500. You absolutely nailed it – 83 wins, only being eliminated from playoff contention in the final week of the season. So you can’t be too surprised, but what parts of last year’s success did surprise you?

Rob Antony: I’d have to say the young players coming up and how much contribution we got from those young players. Tyler Duffey and Sano and Rosario. There were just a number of guys who came up and really gave the team a jolt when we needed it.

And the resiliency – I mean you can’t underestimate what Torii Hunter meant to this club. He was the guy who kinda pulled it all together. We had a new manager and some new staff members, but Torii coming back and having that leader and a guy in the clubhouse who can rally the guys around him is important.

So I think there were a lot of things that went well for us, and a lot of things that happened for us that spurred things on.

JL: Did you plan on having Torii come back? I know he had a bit of time to make a decision at the end of the season, but when you looked at your offseason blueprint was Torii in the starting lineup this summer?

RA: Well, I think we always knew when we got together last year and signed him to a one-year deal that was at his request as much as ours, he knew that he was at the point in his career where it was "I wanted to take it year by year. See how it goes. See where I’m at. There’s going to be a time where I want to devote more time to my family." And we respected and understood that. So we knew that was a possibility.

I think as a favor to us, or just to show the kind of guy he is, he wanted to make a decision and not let it drag throughout the course of the offseason, and give us every opportunity to try and make our decisions in trying to replace him. In trying to figure out how we were going to reconstruct the lineup a little bit, knowing he wasn’t going to be a part of it. So he let us know quickly after the season that he was going to call it a day.

So we were able to do some things – it probably allowed us to jump into the Park running, knowing that we had some offensive production that we needed to replace.

JL: You actually just answered one of my next questions. I might be able to skip that one. But Torii did look like he was having a pretty good time in spring training. Did he let drop that he regretted his decision for a minute, or was he just enjoying his time and before heading back home?

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 05: Former Minnesota Twins player Torii Hunter signs autographs for fans prior to a spring training game between the Minnesota Twins and the Baltimore Orioles at Hammond Stadium on March 5, 2016 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

RA: No, not at all. I think he came in and accomplished what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to come in for a month, he wanted to come in for a week or two, spend some time around the guys, work with Sano, spend some time with Buxton, and do what he could to help contribute to the team and to their individual development. Then he wanted to move on.

He wanted to be able to watch his son play some baseball at Notre Dame this spring, spend some time with his family, and do some of the things that – when you’re a professional player – you just don’t have that time. But in baseball, where the seasons overlap and everything, you don’t get that chance and so he wants to take time to be able to do that.

JL: It’s a nice luxury for him to have. Do you anticipate him having a role with the organization maybe a year or two down the line?

RA: Yeah, I would be surprised if he didn’t have some role in the organization. We had that discussion as well. We sat down with him after he decided he was not going to return as a player, kind of laid out all the options and things we could foresee him doing, and how he could contribute, and at the end of the day he just wanted to take a year to digest it all and figure out what his next step was going to be before he committed to how much time he’d have to get back into baseball and all those things that go with it. I foresee that he’ll be as involved in the organization as he wants to be, and I think he will want to be in some capacity, but it’s going to be up to him to determine what path.

He’s a very talented guy. He could become a broadcaster or any number of things. He’s got tremendous personality and he has great insight on the game, so he could do a lot of things. It’s just going to be up to him to determine what he would enjoy the most.

JL: You did mention lineup construction. With the departure of Hunter and looking at how things are shaping up now, you’ve got Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dozier, Miguel Sano, Byung Ho Park, all guys who you could consider to be right-handed power hitters. Was that construction by design, to play into the advantages of pull power down the left field line at Target Field?

RA: I think it’s no secret that the ball does travel a bit better to left than it does to right. Sometimes you can’t draw it all up. A lot of times people will talk about what we could use in the draft but we never look at it that way because you always want to take the best player that you possibly can, the guy you think has the most ceiling, regardless of whether that’s a position player a pitcher. If it’s a position player you don’t worry so much if it’s right-handed or left-handed, but you do have to be cognizant of how your home park plays. You play half your games there.

At the same time, we just tried to put together the components and the guys we thought would help us to improve our offense. We need to score more runs than we did last year. We think our pitching is going to be better this year, there’s more depth in our rotation. We’re comfortable with how the bullpen is shaking out.

But we do believe we’re going to score more runs. This is a team that’s going to strike out, but there are also going to be days where we can put up a lot of runs and put together some big innings and some crooked numbers. Extra base hits are a key to scoring multiple runs and improving your offense.

JL: If we go back to those early days of November when you and Terry and the front office are sitting down and discussing what you wanted to accomplish for 2016 – what were some of the things that were on your table at that point that you thought were probably your most important priorities for the winter?

RA: We knew that we needed to replace some of the offensive production that Torii Hunter provided. We needed to address our catching situation, particularly our backup catcher. Last year, Kurt Suzuki did not have as good a year as he did the prior year. But of more concern to us was that we weren’t getting much production from the backup catcher. Anytime Kurt wasn’t in the lineup we were getting basically zero offense and we wanted to try and address that as well. In doing that we went and got JR Murphy, who we think has potential to be a starting catcher for us for a long time.

So those were two of our top priorities. The third thing was that we wanted to make sure we didn’t go out and do something where we were going to block off some of our young players and stunt their development and their opportunities. As we found out last year, some of the players who we thought were getting close to being Major League-ready were given an opportunity and they were really productive for us. We believed we had a few more guys that were on the verge as well.

We also like some of the bullpen arms that are a year or two away, and we didn’t want to get into situations where we were signing relievers to three and four-year deals and over-committing ourselves when we have some pretty good alternatives and options coming our way soon.

JL: Was that part of the reason the team didn’t go into free agency and try to reinforce the bullpen that way? Was it simply the fact that the options you were looking at wanted three and four-year deals where the Twins wanted a shorter time frame?

RA: Yeah, I think if the right one or two-year deal had presented itself we might have had interest. But at the same time – a year ago we didn’t have Kevin Jepsen in the bullpen, a year ago we didn’t have Trevor May as an option in the bullpen. Them, along with Casey Fien and Glen Perkins, you start to look and go "Okay, there are four guys at the back end of our bullpen." Guys that we’re comfortable with. Then you’ve got Pressly and Graham and some others that we think would be able to handle that role in the middle innings. So we didn’t want to get too carried away or spend a ton of money and commit a lot of years to guys, when we have in-house guys who we think can be better than those options in the not-too-distant future.

JL: Paul Molitor is heading into his second season as the Twins’ manager, as a member of the leadership in the organization. Now that he’s gone through his second winter with the team, what’s different now compared to his first spin through the offseason?

FORT MYERS, FL - MARCH 16: Paul Molitor #4 of the Minnesota Twins and John Farrell #53 of the Boston Red Sox meet at home plate prior to the start of the Spring Training Game on March 16, 2016 at CenturyLink Sports Complex and Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

RA: I think anytime you’ve gone through a full year of everything and you’ve experienced it, some things don’t sneak up on you. And Paul’s always prepared, but sometimes you’re just not sure how to go about certain things.

I think Paul has acquitted himself extremely well, understands the different roles and the different timings, and as we go through this spring training he’s more comfortable as he knows his coaches better. He’s spent a full season with them, their communication I’m sure is much greater and freer, where they’re comfortable speaking their mind and giving their thoughts and opinions. That makes it a lot easier as we try to make some decisions and meet to pair the roster down. I think Paul has learned some things along the way - how he wants to do things, how he might do some things differently than last year.

And there’s no substitute for experience. You can be around the game all your life, but until you’re in that position and you’re calling the shots as the manager, you don’t know how exactly you’ll handle certain things. You grow and develop your own style and understanding of how you want to do things.

JL: After Gardenhire had been with the organization for so long, we knew what to expect and how Gardy approached things. Molitor has obviously made some changes – more defensive shifts, a willingness to use relievers longer than an inning, sometimes platooning players depending on their strengths. How has it been from a front office perspective, seeing how he’s changed some of those on-field facets of management?

RA: They’re two different personalities and two different styles, and you really just want him to be himself and go with the things he’s comfortable with. Paul is very cerebral, he thinks through a lot of things, he’s very well prepared.

And this isn’t a comparison to Gardy, this is just our observation or my observation of his managerial style, but he spends a lot of time looking at all the information you can give him. He’s willing to take it, digest it, discuss it with the coaches, how it can be utilized, whether it’s relevant. I think you see that with the shifts and the way he handles some matchups and different things.

He said prior to last season that one of his biggest challenges was: how was he going to handle the pitching staff? That’s a part of things he’d never really had to deal with. Last year was a learning experience and I think he did well, and I think at the end of the year he took a look back at it and what he would do differently this year. There will probably be alterations to how he handles things, but I think that he and Neil meshed well together, and they’ll work well again this year.

JL: I think I’d read somewhere over the winter that the Twins had their eyes on Byung Ho Park, that you’d scouted him for something like the last ten years. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but how big is your book on international free agents?

PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - MARCH 6: Byung Ho Park #52 of the Minnesota Twins hits a grand slam home run off of pitcher Jake Odorizzi of the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of an MLB spring training game on March 6, 2016 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

RA: It is accurate, in that we were watching him in high school and had interest in signing him after he graduated. To his credit, he didn’t think he was ready to leave Korea or become a professional baseball player in the US at that point. He had some tough times where he had to make some adjustments and grow and mature, so it was definitely the right call on his part.

The biggest thing that we gained by knowing him the last ten years is that we know what type of person he is, what kind of worker he is, teammate, attitude, adjustability, all those things which gave us great confidence in going after him.

We’ve been involved in the international market more in Latin America than in Asia, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been scouting players. We’ve been in on players and had interest in players, it’s just a lot of times other teams may value them more or be willing to go higher. On pure free agents, there are guys that we’ve been outbid on – it’s just not public knowledge. We don’t talk about players and say "Yeah we bid on him" or "Yeah we’re interested in him." You try to keep it close to the vest, because there is gamesmanship as you try to figure things out. We bid $12.85 million to get the rights to Park, and we came to find out afterward that there were two or three clubs that were very close behind us. So, it’s not always easy coming up with that exact number, and you know you want the player, and you try and figure out what it would take to win the bid and then try and get him signed.

As long as there’s not a worldwide draft, there are a lot of components to it and we have scouts all over the world. And I think we have a pretty good idea about all the players that are out there, and when players get signed – we know about them and have pretty good information on them.

JL: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the gamesmanship and the process. I’ve always appreciated how the Twins do business from that aspect, and it was interesting during the posting process seeing everyone try to figure out who won the bid. Teams are coming out saying "It’s not us," "It’s not us," "It’s not us," and a couple of days into the process I’m sitting on my couch thinking: "The Twins haven’t said anything yet." And of course they wouldn’t, but it’s process of elimination to some extent. Then it comes out you’ve won the bid.

I know we’ve spoken about this before, and you say you always put forward a number you’re comfortable with. But do you feel like you have to be a bit more aggressive sometimes when there’s a player on the market that you really want?

RA: Yeah, you always have to have a bit of a feel where you’re willing to go. But if you want a player, sometimes you might have to go a little bit higher than you want to. You need to. So you try and get a gauge for the market.

And that’s where scouts can really play a role. Who’s been at his games the last month of the season, who’s really bearing down? There’re a lot of rumors out there and sometimes you hear "It’s going to take the maximum $20 million bid to have any chance" on some players. On other players it’s "I haven’t heard a word about this guy," there’s not a lot of talk out there in the world about him, and there are some players who not many teams bid on or who don’t receive a bid at all.

There’s a lot of information out there. And sometimes the more people talk, the more scouts talk amongst themselves – "I’m trying to get ownership on it" or "I’m trying to get the GM on it, they’re not biting or not as interested as I am" – you get that information and you piece it all together.

Really in the end you have to bid what you’re comfortable with, but there’s an element where you have to understand what the market is, and sometimes you go in and you make a bid and you know you’re probably going to get blown out of the water. And sometimes you’re amazed by what the bids are or, for unrestricted free agents, what they get. Especially some of the Cuban players, where they’re harder to scout – you get them at international tournaments, but we’re still not allowed to send scouts into Cuba. In some of those instances there’s relatively little information about a player but they’re still getting $60, $70 million dollars, and some teams probably regret it after they’ve done it. Some, it’s turned out great for them.

JL: Watching Park, as much as I’ve been able to during spring training this year, it seems like he’s taking good at-bats. Sometimes he’s aggressive, sometimes he’s taking longer at-bats, but he seems to be hitting the ball hard. But again, I’ve seen him two or three times. From where you sit, how do the Twins feel about the progress he’s made so far this spring?

RA: I think he looks very comfortable. There were questions – is he going to handle velocity, is he going to handle the harder breaking balls. Probably one of his best at-bats was against Zach Britton. He stayed right on a 96mph fastball and lined it to the center fielder. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and confident. I believe he has great confidence in himself. He knows he’s going to have some struggles, but he also has great confidence in his own ability, as we do. Just him fitting in and wanting to be a good teammate and be a part of the team. He’s not a prima donna, he didn’t come in here as a big shot, "I’m the big sign for the Twins this offseason, here I am" – there wasn’t any of that and in fact it’s been the complete opposite.

He wanted to do interviews, and he got a lot of attention early in camp – especially from the Korean media – and he requested to do it out of the field after the players were all in the clubhouse, because he didn’t want to disturb them and their routine, or for the spotlight to be on him in the middle of the clubhouse doing all these interviews. He wanted to have a little more of a quiet place and not disrupt things. He’s very respectful of his teammates and the process and everything else, and like I said – he just wants to be a part of the team and contribute.

JL: I have to admit, following Twins players on Twitter can be one of the funniest parts of the day. A few days ago Phil Hughes hosted The Bachelor or The Bachelorette viewing party and Park was there with everyone else and seemed to be having a fantastic time. So he definitely looks like part of the team.

But going back to something you’d previously mentioned, which was a worldwide draft. Sort of a two-parter: A, do you think it would happen, and B, do you think it would be good for the game?

RA: At some point I do believe it will happen, and I do think it will be good for the game because it will level the playing field even more. Right now teams are given international pools and are subject to its limits, but that’s not scaring anybody off. They’re just paying the monetary penalty for going over their pool and the ramifications of not being able to sign expensive players for a year or two years after that. So I think it’d be a good thing for the game.

Say the Minnesota Twins have the first pick in the draft. That would be an unfortunate situation because we were the worst team the previous year, but whoever has that pick has the opportunity to pick who they think is the best player available in the world at that time – not just in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, but any player. So somebody could have their choice: Do I take Miguel Sano, or do I want to take the top pitcher at Southern California or whatever the case may be. It opens up possibilities. Anytime you have more options, more possibilities, I think it’s good for teams.

I’m sure agents and teams may disagree with that and not think that would be the greatest thing, especially if they represent a lot of international players, because right now it’s a little bit like the wild wild west, where the big gunners and the big shooters who have unlimited resources can and will put any money they can into that. And then they can turn around and go into the draft and supplement their inventory and talent pool through both avenues. It’s a great advantage if you have those kind of resources.

JL: With the current CBA set to expire, I know that there are a lot of teams that have taken on those penalties you referenced. Because of the gamesmanship we’ve spoken about, and because the current CBA is expiring, do the Twins have interest in blowing their international budget out of the water this year to, if you will, play the game?

RA: We’ve looked at that the last couple of years, to be honest with you. We were on the verge of doing that, actually, a couple of years ago, and then what ended up happening was a few teams – basically we had about six, seven players that we were prepared to just go get and spend millions of dollars on – well, some teams that lost out on guys they were after went after some of those same players and basically doubled what we were prepared to do.

When you’re going to do that – for example, if you were going to give a player $2 million and somebody came and gave him $4 million, if you then give him $4 million it’s like giving him $8 million because the penalty doubles it up.

JL: Right.

RA: So it didn’t work, just because the players we had targeted we weren’t able to get agreements with for what we thought were reasonable. Then you’d be at the point where you’re paying $8 million for a player you think is a $2 or $3 million dollar player and it’s just not good business sense, and it’s not a good use of your resources.

So for various reasons it didn’t happen. But we were contemplating that, and if we would have been in a position to get agreements with players then we would have done something like that.

Part II