Rare Minnesota reboot puts whole new spin on Twins

Minnesota, which lost 103 games last season, has been hanging tough in an up-for-grabs AL Central. Credit a new-look front office -- and Miguel Sano -- for helping spark the Twins' turnaround. Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Brian Dozier says with an easy smile, he would be happy to chat about the two men who are now running the Minnesota Twins' baseball operations. But in the interest of full disclosure, Dozier needs you to know that he was close with former general manager Terry Ryan. Very close.

"He's kind of, quote-unquote, my guy," Dozier says. "Terry and I, it's more like he's not just a GM to me."

Dozier was drafted by the Twins in 2009. He came up through the farm system and made his major league debut in Minnesota in 2012. Dozier has only ever known one organization in his career, and Ryan was right there with him for almost every big moment.

In that way, Dozier isn't much different from most team employees. The Twins are famous for their stability, to say nothing of their loyalty. They have had only three managers over the past 31 seasons. In the 57 years since the franchise moved from Washington, ownership has fired a general manager only twice.

"Truth be known, I haven't played meaningful games into June. That's the honest truth, whether you like it or not."
Brian Dozier

But last July, in the midst of their worst season in Minnesota, and with a core of young players seemingly regressing, the Twins replaced Ryan on an interim basis with assistant general manager Rob Antony. In October, after finishing with 103 losses, they did something they rarely do: They looked to other organizations for new leadership. From the Cleveland Indians, they hired Derek Falvey for a newly created position of chief baseball officer. And from the Texas Rangers, the Twins brought in Thad Levine to serve as general manager.

It didn't take long for the outsiders to make their mark. Falvey and Levine have the surprising Twins in the hunt in the up-for-grabs American League Central. They've even spent 50 days in first place, eight more than the defending AL champion Indians, despite having allowed more runs than they have scored (435-381) and ranking 13th in the league in ERA (4.86).

"I think it was a surprise to everyone how the Twins went outside, so to speak, for the first time," Dozier says. "It's just always been from within. But Derek and Thad have done a very, very good job with not only making changes but being very personable with us about why they're making changes."

Make no mistake, Falvey and Levine are doing things differently than Ryan. For one thing, their backgrounds are in data and analytics, whereas Ryan was rooted in old-fashioned scouting.

But while Falvey and Levine have beefed up the analytics department, bringing a new dimension to player evaluation and changing the way daily scouting reports are prepared and delivered to players and coaches, the biggest reason for the Twins' success might be the new regime's insistence on not changing too much.

How's that for irony?

"One of the benefits that Thad and I had coming in was that we could be objective," Falvey says. "We didn't sit through the 103 losses. That's emotional. That's painful. But we also understood that, objectively looking at our team, we felt the talent on the field wasn't reflective of a 103-loss team. We just didn't see that."

They might have been the only ones.

FALVEY GREW UP in Lynn, Massachusetts, 35 miles north of Boston. He graduated with an economics degree from Trinity College in 2005. For nine seasons, he worked in various capacities for the Indians, rising from an internship in baseball operations to assistant general manager. His familiarity with the Twins consisted of helping the Indians prepare to face them for all those years in the AL Central.

But after taking over baseball operations in Minnesota last fall, Falvey quickly came to realize that all those years of continuity hadn't left team officials resistant to change.

"The thing that stands out is that Twins people, they don't just work here for the paycheck. They care about this organization very deeply," Falvey said. "There's incredible history with people who've worked here for a long time, and they're so invested in Twins winning baseball. I wasn't naive enough to think everyone could change, but I also knew there were a lot of people that were probably open to some new ideas pointing in a different direction and that they'd work their tails off to make sure we were in a good spot."

Falvey and Levine didn't make sweeping changes within baseball operations. Instead, they expanded a department that was far smaller under Ryan than most other teams. Although the Twins were beginning to trend in the direction of using analytics more often under Ryan, Falvey and Levine recognized the need to "play catch up," in Dozier's words, with rivals who had surged ahead.

The Twins hired former New York Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner as an advance scout and put him in charge of watching video and doing a statistical analysis of upcoming opponents. They also added former minor league infielder Jeff Pickler to manager Paul Molitor's staff to help convey analytics data to the coaches and players.

The Twins were going to pay more attention to numbers, but, as Falvey promised, it wouldn't come at the expense of deploying their scouts to "pound the pavement" in search of talent.

"A lot of people say, 'Are you analytics or are you scouting?' I view it as being evidence-based, and I think evidence can come from a number of different avenues," Falvey says. "Evidence can be scouting information; evidence can be makeup information. But let's root ourselves in evidence first. What we've found is that the blend of scouting and the evidence-based information has allowed us to have really good conversations about players, both on our team now and players we may acquire.

"Now, we need to talk through where there are gaps. What are you seeing on the scouting side that doesn't match up with this performance log, one way or the other? Those are our best conversations. It's not pitting one against the other. It's using one to layer on top of the other to make better decisions."

The first big test of the Twins' ability to merge analytics and scouting came during last month's draft. With the first overall pick, they passed on two-way phenom Hunter Greene and took high school shortstop Royce Lewis, who reportedly signed for less than the recommended slot value of nearly $7.8 million and was 4-for-12 with one homer and five RBIs in his first three games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

"We had a very different approach to how we sign players, how we navigated some of the slotting system to maximize our draft," Falvey says. "That wasn't something that had necessarily been done before, and our guys embraced it all the way. That part I feel really good about."

FOR A TEAM that lost 103 games last season, the Twins didn't make major changes to the roster last winter.

Falvey didn't see the need for it.

When Falvey and Levine looked over their personnel, they saw a young core of third baseman Miguel Sano, center fielder Byron Buxton, right fielder Max Kepler, shortstop Jorge Polanco and right-hander Jose Berrios. Franchise icon Joe Mauer provides quiet leadership. And after months of hearing his name come up in trade rumors, Dozier was given an assurance that he wasn't going anywhere.

"We knew we wanted to ensure that those young guys got the runway to develop and grow, and we didn't want to change the roster for change sake," Falvey says. "We wanted to make sure that we invested in those young players, then supplemented with the right kind of veteran leadership."

In particular, the Twins wanted to add experience behind the plate. They brought in catchers Jason Castro, regarded as an expert pitch framer with the Houston Astros, and Chris Gimenez, who played for Falvey in Cleveland and Levine in Texas.

The Twins also placed greater emphasis on defense. Having finally made the leap into analytics, the Twins rely on Pickler and others to disseminate information that allows the players to better position themselves to make plays or the pitchers to form a more complete plan for how to attack hitters.

And having decided to keep the team's core mostly intact, Falvey and Levine also wanted to solicit feedback from the players. They held a series of individual meetings during spring training. Dozier even heard from the new bosses during the winter meetings in December, in part because of the possibility that he could be traded.

"They were always upfront with me, honest, and that's one thing I respect more than anything," Dozier says. "With them, it's not, 'This is the way we're doing it.' It's not, 'This is how it's going to be.' They're always bouncing ideas off of us, from the biggest of things to the smallest of things, like not taking BP. They have a collaborative effort and find every possible solution to what's going to make this thing work. That's their best trait, I think."

Dozier is just happy he's still around to see the Twins' resurgence. In six seasons, he hasn't sniffed the playoffs.

"Truth be known," he says, "I haven't played meaningful games into June. That's the honest truth, whether you like it or not."

With the trade deadline a few weeks away, the Twins are in a position they didn't expect to be in. They're buyers, not sellers, looking to add rather than subtract.

Falvey says he doesn't take for granted the position the Twins are in. To ignore a chance to improve this season would be to insult the effort the players have made to this point. But with a negative run differential and shaky pitching, the Twins aren't about to wager everything on this season either. Falvey intends to operate with the discipline of not trading pieces of the future for short-term gains in the present.

"If we can find ways to add to that group that builds toward the future, that's what we'll look for," Falvey says.

After all, in their first season with the Twins, a couple of outsiders have already taken the ultimate build-from-within organization to heights it never expected to go.

"You have to flip the page -- respectfully so," Dozier says. "Terry was great -- in my opinion, the best. But at the same time, we've all flipped the page, and now we consider Derek and Thad the best."