September 28, 2016
The Derek Falvey Era
Two months after firing longtime general manager Terry Ryan the Twins have decided on his replacement, hiring Indians assistant general manager Derek Falvey as their new front office boss. Going from the 62-year-old, old school, highly experienced Ryan to the 33-year-old, new school, inexperienced Falvey represents a massive shift for the Twins, but one that was clearly necessary following the worst season in team history and a fifth season with 90-plus losses in the past six years. It’s an organization begging for change.
Minnesota’s unsuccessful attempts to interview ex-general managers Alex Anthopoulos and Ben Cherington made headlines and Falvey was rarely portrayed as the front-runner throughout a process aided by the Korn Ferry search firm. In the end he beat out, among others, Rays vice president of baseball operations (and former Baseball Prospectus staffer) Chaim Bloom, Cubs vice president of player development and amateur scouting Jason McLeod, and Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo.
Falvey is baseball’s second-youngest front office boss behind only David Stearns, whom the Brewers hired as general manager last offseason with the help of Korn Ferry. His rise has been rapid, going from Indians intern to Twins boss in just eight seasons, and Falvey held the assistant general manager title in Cleveland for less than one year. His youth and lack of experience running an organization will no doubt be second-guessed and certainly present risks, but there’s a very similar story in Twins history that turned out pretty well.
Carl Pohlad bought the Twins from Calvin Griffith in 1984, at a time when the franchise was in similar disarray. Two years later Pohlad shook up the front office by naming Andy MacPhail as general manager. MacPhail had been the assistant GM in Houston for a short time, and both his father Lee MacPhail and grandfather Larry MacPhail are Hall of Fame executives, but Andy was 32 years old with no real experience running an organization. The local media nicknamed him “Boy Wonder” and it was hardly meant as a compliment in that era.
Griffith had run the franchise for decades, dating back to their days in Washington as the Senators, and Pohlad was determined to shed the old-school label and change the culture of a team that hadn’t posted a winning record since 1979. He started at the top, explaining the decision to hire the inexperienced MacPhail by saying: “I wanted a new, fresh, young look, and somebody who wouldn't get caught up in old thinking.” Two seasons later the Twins won their first World Series. Four years after that they won their second.
MacPhail left Minnesota following the 1994 season and in the two-plus decades since his departure the Twins have a 1,696-1,843 (.479) record with just one postseason series win. During that time they had some success, winning six division titles in nine seasons from 2002-2010, but the combination of limited resources, a proudly old-school mentality that eschewed analytics, and an extreme lack of outside voices kept pushing the Twins further and further behind the rest of baseball until everything fell apart.
Falvey shouldn’t be compared to MacPhail simply by virtue of age and inexperience, and he’s by no means guaranteed similar success. However, the task in front of him is similar to the one MacPhail faced and conquered. Jim Pohlad hired Falvey for many of the same reasons his father hired MacPhail—after two decades of limited success and increasingly out-of-touch leadership at every level, the stale organization desperately needed “a new, fresh, young look, and somebody who wouldn't get caught up in old thinking.”
MacPhail took over a team that had plenty of young building blocks in place, including Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Greg Gagne. He made a few veteran pickups that proved crucial in 1987, but they were relatively low-wattage moves. For the most part, MacPhail let the talent already on hand develop, aiding the process by hand-picking 36-year-old Tom Kelly as the new manager and overhauling the coaching staff, scouting department, minor-league instructors, and front office.
Falvey also has plenty of young building blocks in place, including Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, and Jose Berrios. There’s precious little MLB-ready pitching talent thanks to a decade of poor drafting and the inability to develop bat-missing starters, but there’s essentially already an above-average lineup set and Falvey’s resume with the Indians was built on acquiring and developing arms. Plus, in June the Twins can add a high-upside starter with the no. 1 pick in the draft.
Where the paths of MacPhail and Falvey may divert is in rebuilding off the field. There’s speculation that he won’t be given free reign to clean house, perhaps being forced to keep some longtime front office and scouting staffers, and Pohlad has repeatedly insisted since the day Ryan was fired that Paul Molitor will remain the manager in 2017. Even if Falvey has his version of Kelly in mind, it may have to wait because the Twins can’t quite seem to make a clean break from their broken-down ways.
Falvey’s task is a difficult and complicated one, but there are three key points. First and foremost, he must bring the organization into the modern era of analytics, scouting, and any number of other areas in which they’ve fallen behind in resources, brain power, and sheer number of staffers. Beyond that, he has to find a way to fix a pitching staff that has been the worst in the league for six years without showing any real sign of progress. And once he does that, he has to construct a sustainable contender despite payroll limitations.
Accomplishing those tasks is hard enough and will become even steeper hills to climb if ownership can’t keep their hands off, so hopefully Pohlad follows in his father’s footsteps by allowing the organizational leader he hired to do his thing, full stop. Falvey’s title will likely be president of baseball operations, as the Twins felt restructuring their front office hierarchy was a must after relying so thoroughly on Ryan as traditional GM. That means Falvey will be—or at least should be—able to hire a GM and other key assistants to work under him.
I spent the past 48 hours reaching out to current and former front office staffers across MLB to get their thoughts on Falvey and the responses were overwhelmingly positive in praising both his smarts and his demeanor. His leadership ability remains to be seen, but his baseball mind is sound, modern, and skilled. Along those same lines, Indians manager Terry Francona, who has worked with Falvey since 2013, was effusive in his praise when asked by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
For a 57-year-old baseball lifer and two-time World Series-winning manager to say that about a 33-year-old “boy wonder” shows why the Twins were impressed by Falvey and why, for the first time in a long time, Twins fans have reason to be optimistic about the future of the team for reasons related to the organization’s talent on the field and in the front office.