MINNEAPOLIS -- There’s never only one thing to blame for a team’s total collapse from tied atop a shaky division on Sept. 4 to a 14-game deficit by the end of the regular season a month later, with terms like “frustrated” and “disappointed” used as the descriptors of choice by president of baseball operations Derek Falvey.
Injuries were far from the only problem that sent these hopeful 2022 Twins to a brutal third-place finish, but they were clearly the most prominent, with the club placing second in the Majors with a combined 2,363 player-days lost to the injured list during the regular season. In response, Falvey announced on Monday that head athletic trainer Michael Salazar will not return for the ‘23 season, with a search underway for his replacement.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that Michael is responsible for all of our injuries,” Falvey said. “That’s totally unfair to him and totally unfair to the work he put in, the time he put in, the effort he put in all the way through.
“Ultimately, I wish him nothing but the best going forward. I had a conversation with him all the way through, and I know he’ll find the right spot, but we felt from a leadership standpoint in that space, management of day to day and what that looked like, we wanted to change our direction there. That, ultimately, is the decision we landed on.”
Salazar had been hired as head athletic trainer prior to the COVID-shortened 2020 season, brought in to replace Tony Leo, who lasted two seasons in the role. Salazar had previously worked alongside Falvey in the Cleveland organization throughout the 2000s. This means the Twins’ new head athletic trainer, whom Falvey said would ideally be in place sometime in November, will be the fourth person in the role under this front office regime.
The impact of the injury bug was prominent in how it deprived the team of its most meaningful players down the stretch. Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle and a bevy of other Twins ended the season on the IL, with Buxton having undergone surgery following a season full of knee troubles, though Falvey stood by the Twins’ handling of the center fielder’s situation.
Kirilloff, Gray and Mahle were among seven players placed on the IL multiple times for similar issues this season.
“I will tell you that, the feedback that we were given, and we talked with his agent about this, we talked with Byron, we talked with other surgeons about this, that the best thing to do was to manage it, symptom manage, and try to find a way to treat it as we could and give him the days off when necessary and give him an extra day when we could to try and manage it,” Falvey said.
Some of the many injuries, Falvey said, were out of the Twins’ control. He noted that, in his research, there’s largely no correlation from year to year between teams that were good at preventing injuries or particularly bad at doing so.
With that said, clearly, things could -- and should -- be better in ‘23. How do the Twins intend to do that?
It starts with offseason planning, Falvey said, when the Twins will engage in conversations with personnel from other sports and different industries about better handling preventable soft-tissue injuries. Once they make the new hire, there will be a focus on working with players to ensure that fewer of them will be showing “deficiencies” in their physical condition when reporting to Spring Training.
He also indicated a hope that the Twins can be more deliberate and proactive in their rehab plans for players returning from health issues.
“I think that from an athletic training standpoint, areas we might want to direct, we dealt with a lot of injuries this year, and maybe this is unfair with respect to that group, but I feel like we could be a little bit more planned and purposeful in the way that we go about some of that return [from injury],” Falvey said. “Because we were reacting at times for some players.”
Twins anticipate entire coaching staff will return in ‘23
The Twins had to scramble to adapt their coaching staff in June, when pitching coach Wes Johnson abruptly left to become the pitching coach at LSU. But even at the end of a tumultuous and disappointing season, Falvey said the Twins do not plan on dismissing any members of manager Rocco Baldelli’s staff ahead of the ‘23 season.
That means Pete Maki will remain pitching coach and Colby Suggs will remain bullpen coach after the pair was suddenly promoted to new, more prominent roles in the wake of Johnson’s departure -- though Falvey also noted that the Twins hope to add another voice to the group.
“We did a ton of sourcing of player feedback toward the end of the year on how Pete grew, how Colby grew, how the staff grew, how [assistant pitching coach] Luis Ramirez stepped into another role,” Falvey said. “I anticipate we'll augment that group, just because we did lose somebody and had to kind of backfill on the fly. We're continuing to evaluate it, but we feel really good about the growth of those guys going forward.”
Maki had been highly regarded as the Twins’ Minor League pitching coordinator before he was promoted first to interim bullpen coach in ‘20, bullpen coach in ‘21 and pitching coach in ‘22. Suggs worked in advance scouting as the Twins’ run prevention coordinator before he moved to a coaching role.
The Twins’ pitching staff had a 3.71 ERA and 5.2 WAR, per FanGraphs -- 22nd in the Majors -- prior to the midseason coaching changes. Following Maki’s and Suggs’ promotions, the staff ERA rose to 4.25 for the remainder of the season, as Falvey emphasized the extreme difficulty of the pair having to adapt to new roles in the middle of a campaign.