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New executives bought into Molitor message that fairly intact Twins team could be much better

Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor (4) looks on in a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox last month. Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS—Shortly after the Twins tapped Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to fix a team that had just lost 103 games, the new executives sat down with Paul Molitor and asked what needed to change.

The answer was a bit of a surprise.

With better fundamentals and more success late in games, Molitor told them, the Twins would be much better than their 59 wins without dramatic changes. After checking the analytics, Falvey and Levine bought into the message.

That's why major league baseball's worst team in 2016 is back nearly intact.

"I'm not saying we walked out of that conversation and said, 'Let's just hit the reset button and assume things are going to get a lot better,' " Levine said this week. "But we had faith that if these guys played a little better fundamental baseball, if the younger guys got better, then we could make strides."

That's why the Twins began the 2017 season Monday with an Opening Day lineup that included eight of nine hitters from last season, and a starting rotation and bullpen that changed little.

If the Twins were hoping to bottom out for a rebuilding strategy similar to the one that worked for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, the roster would make obvious sense. But Falvey and Levine insist they expect to become competitive without another horrible season and subsequent high draft choice.

"We're hopeful that what we saw last year was an anomaly," Levine said. "There have been teams extremely successful rebuilding ... (without) losing 100-plus games multiple years in a row. That's something we've been very clear about with (owner) Jim Pohlad and (president) Dave St. Peter.

"Some teams that (rebuilt) were open-minded. The Houston Astros have done an excellent job sling-shotting themselves back into contention born out of the fact that they had some really rough seasons back to back. So did the Chicago Cubs. ... But our hope is that what we saw last year will prove to be a significant anomaly for the projection of the team."

It was natural for Falvey and Levine to question whether the Twins had the talent for meaningful improvement from a year ago. But feelings were eased, Levine said, when rival MLB executives showed interest in trading for Twins players.

"That speaks to the fact that they didn't see it as a 103-loss team; they saw it as more talented than that," Levine said.

The only everyday player Falvey and Levine added to the roster was catcher Jason Castro, who posted a batting average of .210 last season but had two hits and drove in two runs in the Twins' 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Monday.

It was Minnesota's first Opening Day victory since 2008.

Castro was a part of Houston's rebuild following a three-year stretch of at least 106 losses. They stockpiled talent and made the playoffs in 2015. But Castro said the Twins are in better shape than the Astros were.

"This team is light-years ahead of where they were in that rebuild process in Houston," Castro said. "I think we'll make vast improvements from where this team finished last year."

Falvey said the players added this offseason were chosen in part to help build a new clubhouse culture, such as Matt Belisle, a 14-year veteran, and Craig Breslow, a 12-year veteran. They also signed nine-year veteran Chris Gimenez to serve as the backup catcher.

"They know that you have to hold yourself to high standards when no one is watching," Falvey said. "Part of the approach is to make sure we're embracing that. I'm not saying that the guys here last year didn't do that, but we wanted to make sure that was something we made clear is a priority this year."

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