Thad Levine had a great run with the Rangers as Jon Daniels' assistant general manager for more than a decade, but the 45-year-old has now traded in the Texas heat for a home in Minnesota after being hired as the Twins' new senior vice president and GM in November.
Levine and Derek Falvey, Minnesota's new executive VP and chief baseball officer, are tasked with the challenge of turning around a Twins team that lost a Major League-high 103 games last season.
MLB.com sat down with Levine in his office at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., to discuss his career, the industry and more. In Part 1 of the two-part Q&A, Levine talks about a variety of topics, including the challenge of rebuilding a franchise, how Brian Dozier can follow up on his breakout season and Byron Buxton's future.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: There are a lot of managers in the league that have had solid playing careers, but what does it mean to have a Hall of Famer (Paul Molitor) running your clubhouse?
Levine: We have one of the best of all those guys who had solid careers. (laughs) He certainly has the best swing.
MLB.com: Probably the most hits, I would think.
Levine: I would think so. I feel like in a successful sports franchise, baseball and otherwise, you really don't need to look too much further than the relationship between the owner, the pinnacle decision-maker and the manager. If you have harmony between those three, I think you have a chance to have sustained success. If you have harmony between two but not the third, you may be able to spike up at some point, but it's going to be probably tough to sustain. Quite frankly, as you well know, the teams that have disharmony across all three are in disarray, by and large. You really don't have to look too much further than that.
Paul, the minute Derek and I got these opportunities, he was the first person we reached out to and sat down with. He's been tremendous. Aside from his accomplishments on the field, which I think lends itself to extreme credibility within the clubhouse, he's also an extremely smart man. He's very well prepared, very bright and an advanced strategist. He's been a great pairing for Derek and I so far.
• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
MLB.com: The Twins lost 103 games last season. They haven't been in the postseason since 2010, haven't won a playoff game since '04 and haven't won a title since 1991. With all that in the backdrop, what would you consider a successful season in 2017?
Levine: You know, that wasn't that uplifting, what you just said.
MLB.com: They're facts. I didn't make them up.
Levine: (laughs) Fair enough. There wasn't much colorization. The irony of that declaration in part is because Derek and I look at what transpired last year kind of in the thrill ends of opportunity. I feel for the fan base here, the team who had to sit through a 103-loss season. We've all done that and it's excruciating. Typically as a front-office executive, when you see that on the horizon, you go see a lot of Minor League games starting in about mid-June and you never come home. It can only go up from here.
We also get the first pick in the Draft from the torture that they endured last year, we have a robust pool internationally, we have the first waiver-claim position. We're intending to use all of those to try to help really slingshot us back in the right direction. As we talked to Jim Pohlad through the interview process, our aspiration is not to follow in the very successful footsteps of the Houston Astros and the Cubs, where they did have multiple seasons in which they were picking in the top two to three, two to five in the Draft. We're hopeful we're picking first once and once only.
I think there's a sense that this team probably experienced somewhere between the fifth- and 10th-percentile of outcomes last year just due to the injuries and setbacks for some of our players. There's a wealth of young talent on the field which belies a normal team that loses 103 games. Most teams that lose 100-plus games have been so decimated by injuries that they're bereft of talent and they're really populated at the end of the year by a bunch of Minor League free agents who have just been called into duty as a result of the myriad of injuries that the team has suffered.
We have a wealth of young pre-arbitration position-player talent, some burgeoning pitching talent that suggests that this team has a chance to do a lot better. Don Welke, the longtime scout, always used to say to us, "Whatever we think of our players is secondary to what the industry does. The industry will let you know how valuable our players are." This offseason, we had a number of teams inquiring in trade about some of our players, so my guess is they don't view those players as contributing to a last-place finish, but rather that if things were done over, things could go in a different direction.
My hope for this year is that we play better fundamental baseball, that's first and foremost for this team. That's what this franchise was known for. As you referenced, the long hangover since we've been more playoff-relevant, everyone in the league viewed those teams as highly athletic, over-defensive, pitch-to-contact type teams, executed the fundamentals both offensively and defensively. It's not reinventing the wheel, but it's getting back to that level of identity first and foremost. Once we do that, were going to start playing relevant games deeper and deeper into the season with the ultimate goal of playing relevant games in September and knocking on the door in October.
• Twins' Top 30 prospects
MLB.com: Even with the last-place finish, the season was not bereft of positives. Brian Dozier had a monster season last year, especially in the power department. Is it realistic to expect that kind of season from him again?
Levine: You know, this question was much more optimistic than the previous one. (laughs)
MLB.com: I said there were some positives, too.
Levine: It's hard to ask a person to deliver 42 home runs again and have the home run rate that he posted in the second half of last year, which was almost rivaling that of the Barry Bonds seasons. It was an epic run that he went on, so I don't think we're expecting him to reach that again, nor do I think that he needs to do that to have an excellent season. He's taken monumental steps forward to becoming one of the devout leaders on this team; that's a huge value.
I think he's a well-above-average defensive player, which gets lost a little bit in the fact that he hits 42 home runs and what comes with that. I fully expect he will have a huge impact from the power standpoint at second base. Whether it's in the form of 42 home runs, or fewer with some more doubles, I don't know. One thing I know that has been huge for this franchise has been the step forward he's taken from a leadership standpoint.
MLB.com: If nothing else, I assume the year Dozier had has to boost his personal confidence heading into this season -- whether he needed it or not.
Levine: I think it's a testament to just how strong that position is that he's not representing the USA in the World Baseball Classic. That's a testament to Daniel Murphy and Ian Kinsler. The position is about as rich as this game has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. I think he's right there in that conversation with that grouping across the world with the Robinson Canos, Rougned Odors and Jose Altuves. You look up and down the league, Dustin Pedroia. I don't mean to leave anybody out, which I'm sure I am, but the position is extremely rich right now. For him to be toward the top of that class is a true testament to his achievements.
MLB.com: Phil Hughes had a great season in 2015, but battled physical problems last year and underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. How important is he to your rotation this year?
Levine: Immensely. As we look at a rotation that really struggled last year injury-wise and performance-wise, we knew we weren't going to be able to go play on the high end of the free-agent market -- and quite frankly, we didn't view this offseason's free-agent market to be too significant on the starting pitching side. We look at Phil Hughes as if we went out on the free-agent market and acquired a No. 3 or 4 starter for a team that was desperately in need of that.
It's a subtle move we made this offseason, but just by getting healthier in our starting rotation -- and Phil is at the top of that list -- I think we have a chance to really give this team a shot in the arm. With the lack of performance we got out of the starting rotation, it put such undue pressure on the bullpen that was by and large pretty inexperienced. That started taking on water toward the end of the year, as any would, so to be able to take some pressure off them and layer on top of it the quality he can deliver, it could really be a huge step forward for this franchise.
Video: Twins GM on Phil Hughes
MLB.com: Pretty much ever since Joe Mauer entered the Majors -- and especially after he signed his contract here -- this has been considered his team. How important is he to this franchise on and off the field?
Levine: I think he's the face of the franchise. He's been the personality that people are drawn to. It's a long lexicon of really high-end dynamic plyers that have played for this franchise that has dated back decades now. But I think he's the most respected player on our team, probably one of the most respected guys in the game. He's kind of transitioned a little bit in his career from behind the plate to now first base, but he's still, in our minds, one of the best table-setters in the game, and it's a great balance to our youth in the sense that we've got a few free-swinging youngsters who could learn a lot from watching how he approaches an at-bat.
MLB.com: We've seen Byron Buxton start to show his talent. Do you think this could be a season where he breaks out and becomes the player that everybody is expecting him to be?
Levine: I talked about it earlier; I think he may be one of the banner players that I reference in terms of when you juxtapose about him anecdotally, through scouting reports, through video, through watching him live, versus when you actually get to meet the man, how much higher regard I have for him now, than I did before taking the opportunity. He's the very unique blend of confidence and humility that comes across as very authentic and sincere. So not only do I think he has a chance to take a step on the field, but I think he has a chance to start molding himself after the Joe Mauers and Justin Morneaus, Torii Hunters and Kirby Pucketts and Kent Hrbeks as one of the future leaders of a very historic franchise.
MLB.com: Miguel Sano saw a dip in some of his numbers last season, on-base and slugging in particular. But at 23, that's not really that unusual. How important is it for him this year to make adjustments, here in his third season? It seems a lot of rookies have that sophomore slump because pitchers make adjustments to them; now it's important for him to make those adjustments. Do you think he's prepared to do that?
Levine: I think it's his singular focus right now. My understanding, and once again, I was not here for this, but I think the experiment of trying him in the outfield probably really put a lot of stress on him as he probably recognized early on that he wasn't suited for that opportunity. The fact that he's now settled back at a position that he's very comfortable in, I think allows him to try to be the well-rounded player that he should be. I don't know to what extent that impacted his offensive season last year, the experiment in the outfield, but I see a guy who is very confident right now.
Talking to the coaches who have been around him last year and this (year), they're talking about a different person, just in terms of the presence and the swagger that he has. But kind of how he goes, so too will this franchise go. He's part of that heart of this core between he and Buxton, (Max) Kepler, (Eddie) Rosario and (Jorge) Polanco that have a chance to really shape this franchise moving forward. He's the guy who could be the anchor in the middle of the lineup, being the really plus run producer. We're really hopeful he takes the next step and we're trying to put all the resources around him to facilitate that.
MLB.com: We'll end on a nice positive note for you. A few weeks away from Opening Day, what are you most excited about with this team this season?
Levine: I'm most excited about seeing the growth of that young core, because I think that has a chance to be really special for our fans. I'm excited about seeing Brian Dozier take the next step as a leader and really emerge, rather than just a small-market guy who happened to have 42 home runs, to being what he deserves to be -- considered one of the best players in the game. I'm excited for the pitching staff to get healthy and see what this team can actually do. And then midseason or so, I'm excited to see some of our younger players come up from the farm system and cut their teeth at the big league level, start to become a part of the next wave of the Minnesota Twins.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.