After the Minnesota Twins traded closer Fernando Rodney to Oakland in an Aug. 9 waiver-wire deal, manager Paul Molitor spent the next two months auditioning replacements.
Molitor is gone, but three top internal candidates for closer remain.
Trevor Hildenberger, Taylor Rogers and Trevor May earned saves as the season wound down, seven by side-armer Hildenberger, two by left-hander Rogers and three by power-arm May.
May fits the profile, but Hildenberger was the first one Molitor went to, and the reliever he used most often in save situations, and he enjoyed it.
“To be able to impact the game in that role is really fun. You do your job, you win the game right there,” Hildenberger said this week. “So, to have that impact in that role was new, and there was a learning curve - and my first full year in the big league was a learning curve. Hopefully, I can take some things from that and try to improve.”
Hildenberger wasn’t perfect in his first stab at closing; after Rodney’s departure, going 2-3 and 7 of 9 in save situations with an 8.47 earned-run average.
By contrast, May’s last four appearances were in the eighth inning or later, and he had three saves with a 0.00 ERA.
Speaking at a holiday party at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare sponsored by the Twins and Target, Hildenberger, who will begin his throwing program this week, said he isn’t focused on trying to earn the closing gig for 2019.
“A role is not something I’m thinking about,” he said. “I’m just trying to get better and help the team.”
All three candidates have new bosses to impress.
Rocco Baldelli has replaced Molitor, and Wes Johnson has replaced pitching coach Garvin Alston. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training on Feb.13 in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I’m going to approach it the same way I did last year, which is I want to make the team, I want to contribute, I want to be someone they can rely on who’s available every day,” Hildenberger said. “Staying healthy was a huge positive for me and I want to do it again. Any time Rocco or Wes calls on me, I want to be ready.”
Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer were teammates for 11 years, and have been friends for longer. They also both struggled with concussion issues that cut short their careers.
But Mauer didn’t lean on Morneau for advice before deciding to retire after this season.
“I told him, if he wanted to, I was there. But I think he kind of knew,” Morneau said this week. “After what happened in May, I think he knew.”
In May, Mauer, 35, suffered a serious concussion after chasing a foul ball in Anaheim -- the last of several concussions Mauer suspects he’s suffered since he was a three-sport athlete at Cretin-Derham Hall.
“I told him I’d like to see him keep playing, but that’s the only thing I said to him,” Morneau said. “It’s not easy. He hasn’t hit it yet. Maybe mid-February, maybe Opening Day, it kind of gets you a little bit. … You start itching. And all of a sudden, it’s the sixth inning, and you go get a hot dog and you go, ‘OK. All right.’ ”
Morneau joined Mauer, Hildenberger and Byron Buxton at Gillette Children’s on Tuesday, Dec. 11, and appears to have been the recruiter who got the others there.
The hospital has rooms for 60 patients and serves many more from throughout the state, specializing in - but not limited to - traumatic injuries.
Tuesday’s event was the largest ever at Gillette, and the first of its kind in Minnesota. Target sponsors a similar event at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Morneau also has helped the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center in Minneapolis collect coats for those in need the past nine years.
Mauer and former teammate Corey Koskie signed autographs for donors during an event on Dec. 9.
This year, Morneau said, they have collected and distributed 7,600 coats since Oct. 27. In nine years, more than 34,000 coats have been donated.
“They said they actually had enough to start sending them to some of the other centers so they can get them to people outside of the Cities,” Morneau said. “As soon as they come in, they get them out the door.”