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Twins 2017 Season Preview: Five biggest off-season changes

Haven’t been paying close attention to the Twins this winter? Here’s the five biggest changes they made for the upcoming season.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins
The Twins bagged themselves a new catcher in the off-season.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t necessarily the most “exciting” off-season for the Minnesota Twins, or really for most of baseball. It was a pretty thin free agent market, especially for pitching. Though there were a lot of rumors about the Twins potentially trading star second baseman Brian Dozier, that never happened, and the Doz’ remains on the team.

However, if you weren’t paying a lot of attention this off-season, you may have missed some of the big-but-not-splashy changes the Twins did make.

Here are the five biggest of those changes, listed from biggest to least-biggest-of-the-biggest.

1. Hired a brand new front office

Far and away, the biggest change for the Twins this off-season was the hiring of their new front office, headed by Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey. If you’re wondering, “Hey, who was the previous Chief Baseball Officer before?” the answer is the Twins didn’t have one.

After firing former GM Terry Ryan, the Twins decided not just to hire a replacement, but completely restructure their front office to be more in line with modern baseball norms. They now have both a CBO, Derek Falvey, and a GM, Thad Levine. While the two apparently consult one another and work together, Levine seems more responsible for day-to-day management of players and rosters, while Falvey seems to have a larger focus over all departments in the front office.

One of those departments is the analytics department, which is expected to both grow and be more utilized under the new front office leadership. The Twins have long had a reputation for being behind on the times, including the use of analytics, so this is a welcome change for most fans.

The team also went out and hired Torii Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins, and Michael Cuddyer as special assistants to the front office, because... why not?

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2. Signed new catcher Jason Castro

One of the immediate affects of the front office’s larger emphasis on analytics was signing new starting catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal. Though he has just a .232/.309/.390 career batting line, it doesn’t matter so much because the new front office did not sign him for his offensive powers. They made the aggressive push to sign him for his defensive skills—most notably, his pitch framing.

Here’s the thinking behind this one: The 2016-2017 off-season free agent market was pretty abysmal, especially for pitching, which was and is the team’s greatest need. There just weren’t really any good players for the Twins to sign. Instead, they got a really good defensive catcher who can help improve the pitchers the team already has.

Obviously, the flip side of this signing is that former starting catcher Kurt Suzuki was not re-signed by the Twins. Kurt now plays for the braves.

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3. Got some new coaches

Though Paul Molitor is still manager, the Twins made numerous changes to their coaching staff. Gone are both hitting coach Tom Brunansky and first base coach Butch Davis. In their places are new hitting coach James Rowson, new first base coach Jeff Smith, and new major league coach (yes, that is his official title), Jeff Pickler.

James Rowson was formerly a coach in the Yankees system, and not a whole lot is known about him yet. Jeff Smith has been a long-time minor league manager for the Twins, and spent last season as manager of the Ft. Myers Miracle.

Jeff Pickler is the oddest one of the bunch, and not only because of his extremely vague title. Pickler, who has never played nor coached before in the major leagues, was previously working in the Dodgers front office. He’s apparently both a strong on-field coach and analytics guy. It was reported that he will “serve as a conduit” between the front office and coaching staff.

Hopefully, these guys can help the young Twins team find their footing in the majors.

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4. Solidified Miguel Sano as third baseman

Remember last season when the Twins inexplicably decided Miguel Sano could play right field? I know, I know, I should have warned you before bringing that up again.

Those days are now officially over, especialy since Trevor Plouffe is no longer a Twin. The team declined arbitration with Plouffe and waived him to make him a free agent last November. He’s now with the Athletics.

The off-shoot of this is that Miguel Sano is now firmly entrenched as the starting third baseman for the Minnesota Twins. Of course, guys like Eduardo Escobar or likely backup catcher Chris Giminez can cover the position too, but Sano is expected to be the guy most of the time—for better or worse. Just as in right field, he’s had some defensive woes at third.

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5. Plan to play Joe Mauer less often

Here’s a case were less might mean more for the Twins in 2017. Last fall Paul Molitor revealed that he plans to give first baseman Joe Mauer more time off during the 2017 season. As he explained to 1500 ESPN:

“I think I overplayed Joe the first half,” Molitor said in the radio interview. “I think it resulted in maybe leading to a potential injury as well as maybe the downslide of performance near the end of the season. So I don’t think he’s a guy that you’re going to look to play 150-plus games.

“It’s going to smarter, it’s going to be better matchups, it’s going to be rest along the way, and where he ends up in total games, I think it’s going to be less than what we’ve seen the last couple years to try to get the most out of Joe,” Molitor said.

This could potentially be a big change for Mauer, who will turn 34 years old this April 19th. Though Mauer has actually only ever played more than 150 games in a season once (2015), Molitor probably wasn’t thinking about exact numbers when he made his comments. Clearly the idea is just that he will be more likely to give Mauer time off in the upcoming season.

Hopefully with added rest, Mauer can stay higher-performing when he is on the field. Fans may have noticed in the past few seasons that Mauer tends to start off hot, and slowly backslide as things go on.

It also means we’ll see more of Kennys Vargas, ByungHo Park, and/or someone else (Miguel Sano!?) at first base.

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Think this ranking of changes is incorrect? Were there other off-season changes you think were bigger than these? Leave a comment.