Sid Hartman
See more of the story

When Paul Molitor headed into spring training last season, he was a manager on the hot seat. The Twins had retooled their front office with the hiring of Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine to revamp baseball operations.

Molitor was in the last year of his contract, and there were no talks of an extension.

The Twins were coming off the worst season in team history, losing 103 games in 2016. And there was a lot of uncertainty about who would be playing in the field and what the pitching staff would look like.

But things turned around in 2017, as the Twins reached the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and Molitor was given a three-year contract extension.

“I’m optimistic because of the, I believe, corner that we turned,” Molitor said about his feeling heading into spring training, as pitchers and catchers report Tuesday. “But I’m also smart enough to realize that three years ago we almost made the playoffs and we followed that up with a dud of a season.

“But you look at the talent we have, and I think everyone is encouraged about the direction we’re going — the additions we made this winter, the development and confidence of our young guys. We’re not going to take anything for granted and we’ll be ready to go. But I’m really excited to see what this team can do.”

Still there are already question marks for the start of the season.

Will third baseman Miguel Sano be suspended by Major League Baseball, and if so, for how long? And how long will ace Ervin Santana be sidelined after finger surgery?

Pitching will be a focus

It’s been a slow offseason for major league free agents, but the Twins have signed four so far, all four being pitchers, three of them relievers. The Twins finished ninth out of 15 AL teams in ERA last year and that is one of the key areas they need to improve.

The relievers they signed are Fernando Rodney out of Arizona, Zach Duke from St. Louis and Addison Reed from Boston.

Rodney, a three-time All-Star, posted a 4.23 ERA in 55⅓ innings last year but did have 65 strikeouts and 39 saves. Duke had a 3.93 ERA in only 18⅓ innings, but he was coming back from elbow surgery. Reed was probably the most prominent singing as he had a 2.84 ERA in 76 innings with 76 strikeouts and 19 saves between the Red Sox and Mets.

“My biggest concern over a long season is pitching. We’ve really made some nice additions to the bullpen, and I think that gives me nice confidence and maneuverability in how we go about closing out games,” Molitor said. “But our rotation is the one area we need to make sure we have depth. We went through 17 starting pitchers last year, which is an extremely high number. We’re going to have to make sure we have not only quality but depth.”

The fourth free-agent signee is former Yankees starter Michael Pineda, but he had elbow surgery in July and might not be available all season.

Lineup set, hopes for health

While the lineup seems stable, Molitor said the team really benefited last season from good health.

“We were extremely healthy with our position players last year. Sano’s injury [in August] being the one big thing we had to deal with. It’s kind of nice to know you have a guy like [Eduardo] Escobar, who hit 20 home runs, be available to kind of be your 10th man, if you will,” Molitor said. “There is still some decisions to make in terms of how we’re going to line them up, in terms of order, but you can pretty much bet if guys are healthy who is going to be in that Opening Day lineup.”

All in all, Molitor said he thinks that the gains the team made last year will continue this season.

“I was hopeful last year that some guys would start to figure things out. I knew what we had to do collectively in terms of improving our pitching and defense, and we did that,” he said. “But I’m smart enough not to be in the prediction business either, there are too many variables.”

Gophers football academics

Last year, the Gophers football team matched its highest marks ever for multiyear Academic Progress Rates at 992, which ranked ninth in the country and third in the Big Ten behind Northwestern and Michigan, and there’s a decent chance the team will top it this year, coach P.J. Fleck said.

“We had the best GPA ever in the history of Gophers football after a fall semester, so very proud of our players,” Fleck said. “This was the first true morning practice system they had during the fall, with a first-year head coach, a ton of change, a ton of adjustments.

“You’ve got to give [associate academic director and director of football] Jacki [Lienesch] and [academic counselor] Robert [Day] and [academic director] J.T. [Bruett] a ton of credit in our academic field and department but also our coaches and players who invest in being true student athletes.”

The Gophers football team was led in academics by kicker Emmit Carpenter and long snapper Payton Jordahl, who both earned academic all-district honors in November. Carpenter had a 3.54 grade-point average and Jordahl finished with a 3.71 GPA.

JOTTINGS

• Now that the dust has settled on the Vikings’ season, quarterback Case Keenum talked about some of the great memories he had in 2017. “Coming back after Pittsburgh and beating Tampa and getting the game ball after that with the guys surrounding me in the locker room is one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can take away from any Vikings fan the [Stefon Diggs catch to beat the Saints], so there are a lot of great things that the Vikings family gets to share from this season.”

• Diggs was ranked as the best “tight window” receiver in the NFL, according to its Next Gen Stats. The stat reflects when a receiver had less than a yard of separation from his defender.

• The Vikings have started their draft preparations and some pundits believe they will attempt to select Mike McGlinchey, a tackle out of Notre Dame. McGlinchey, a cousin of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, was named an Associated Press first-team All-America.

• ESPN had the Vikings ranked fourth in power rankings for next season, writing: “Even if [Keenum doesn’t return], the Vikings should be in good shape. Both [Sam] Bradford and [Teddy]Bridgewater have winning records under Mike Zimmer.”

• The combined 2017 records of Vikings 2018 road opponents is 72-56. This past season it was 59-68-1, so you get an idea of how much more difficult the schedule will be.

• Now that the 2018 football recruiting classes are complete, the Gophers ranked seventh in the Big Ten by 247sports.com, with 26 signings. Of the top 10 players in the state of Minnesota, the Gophers signed six.

• Notre Dame quarterback coach Tommy Rees was recently in Edina to check in on the Irish’s recruiting of Quinn Carroll, the offensive lineman who is the state’s top recruit for 2019. Carroll has received 32 scholarship offers, including many from the nation’s top programs.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • shartman@startribune.com