MINNEAPOLIS — A bleary-eyed Paul Molitor walked into a season-ending meeting with executives Derek Falvey and Thad Levine less than 10 hours after the Minnesota Twins fell to the New York Yankees in the AL wild-card game.
Molitor built a Hall of Fame playing career by being able to anticipate things before they happened on a baseball diamond, but even he could not get a read on whether the two first-year Twins executives were there to extend him an offer to return as Twins manager or to say their goodbyes and wish him well.
“I was back and forth on it at different times,” Molitor said on Tuesday. “I wasn’t trying to be presumptuous.”
Falvey and Levine wanted to spend the entire season evaluating the baseball operations, including Molitor, who was in the final year of a three-year contract. They vowed not to discuss contracts during the season, even after Molitor’s name emerged as a favorite for AL Manager of the Year while helping the Twins become the first team to qualify for the playoffs after losing more than 100 games the previous year.
Molitor understood the approach, but it did not mean it was easy.
“It’s not a totally comfortable thing,” Molitor said. “But I think for the most part, staying task-focused … obviously having a competitive season with a wild card appearance, helped keep that focus consistent without being too distracted by it.
“I tried to put it on the back burner as best as I could.”
The Twins qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2010. It was a short stay thanks to the loss to the Yankees, but Falvey and Levine saw enough through the season to extend Molitor and offer to remain as manager in that meeting last week. After a few days of negotiations, Molitor signed a three-year contract that runs through 2020.
“I can’t commend him more for how he handled that in such a professional manner,” Falvey said. “I’m not surprised, given the relationship we’ve built and the person he is and how I feel about him. But it felt like, for us, the first time going through this that the right time to do it was after we stopped playing baseball.”
From the outset, the pairing of a 34-year-old whiz kid executive with a 61-year-old baseball icon who grew up in the Twin Cities appeared to be an interesting one. Falvey was hired by owner Jim Pohlad last winter to replace longtime GM Terry Ryan after the team lost 103 games. Pohlad’s only directive to Falvey and his right-hand man Levine was they had to keep Molitor as manager through the final year of his deal.
The three had not previous relationship to build on, so they started from scratch. Falvey and Levine made frequent trips to the manager’s office during spring training and in the regular season, working to forge a connection to jumpstart the evaluation process.
That kind of setup — a lame-duck manager, new leadership with no direct ties — often portends to a change. But the surprising success the Twins enjoyed and the common ground found during the countless discussions on Molitor’s turf produced a different outcome. Minnesota went from 59-103 last year to 85-77 this season.
“During the course of the year it felt like we were building that relationship,” Falvey said. “I just don’t believe it had to be a view that there was our guy or my guy or otherwise. Paul’s our guy.”
As engaged as Falvey and Levine were, they drew a bold line when it came to on-field decisions, which Molitor appreciated.
“I’ve never felt meddled in in terms of how I ran a game, my pitching staff, who I decided to play on a given day,” Molitor said. “I was given total freedom to do that. And I think that’s important for a manager and his staff to have those decisions stay within the clubhouse.”
The Twins did part ways with pitching coach Neil Allen, but Molitor said he expected the rest of his coaching staff to return next season. The Twins also announced that Jeremy Zoll, a 27-year-old from the Los Angeles Dodgers, was hired as the new director of minor league operations. He replaces Brad Steil, who is moving to director of professional scouting.