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Twins retain Paul Molitor on three-year extension, fire pitching coach Neil Allen

Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor (4) watches from the dugout during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After guiding the Twins to a record-setting turnaround, Paul Molitor has agreed to a new three-year contract, the team announced Monday afternoon.

Molitor, 61, was invited back on Oct. 5, two days after a season-ending loss to the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card game. Molitor, whose original three-year deal had expired, then spent the better part of the next four days weighing the merits of a Twins offer that improved over the weekend.

A person with direct knowledge said Sunday night the two sides were “moving in a positive direction” and had reclaimed momentum in the talks after entering a “holding pattern” on Friday. Hired by former general manager Terry Ryan in November 2014, Molitor successfully navigated his first contract negotiation with current bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.

Hours after Molitor’s return was announced, pitching coach Neil Allen confirmed his firing after three seasons in that role with the Twins. Allen, 59, was hired out of the Tampa Bay Rays system by Ryan and became a popular mentor to Twins pitchers such as Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios.

“I know they’re new people on the block, so probably in the back of their minds they had thoughts of making changes,” Allen said of Falvey and Levine. “Did I think I would be part of the changes? Why wouldn’t I? It didn’t totally surprise me because they’re new and they’re free to do what they want to do — and they did.”

Potential in-house candidates to replace Allen include Triple-A Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn; Double-A Chattanooga pitching coach Ivan Arteaga; director of major league video scouting Jeremy Hefner; and Twins bullpen coach Eddie Guardado.

Outside candidates could include former Twins World Series MVP Frank Viola, Triple-A pitching coach for the New York Mets; minor-league pitching coordinators such as ex-Gophers star Jim Brower (Chicago Cubs), Danny Clark (Texas Rangers) and Ruben Niebla (Cleveland Indians); and recently dismissed big-league pitching coaches Jim Hickey (Rays); Bob McClure (Philadelphia Phillies); Dave Eiland (Kansas City Royals); Rich Dubee (Detroit Tigers) and Dan Warthen (Mets).

McClure and Molitor were teammates with the Milwaukee Brewers for nearly a decade.

Twins starters improved from dead last in earned run average (5.39) to 19th (4.73) last season, even while running out the likes of Nick Tepesch, Tim Melville, Adam Wilk, Nik Turley and 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, the majors’ oldest player.

A rookie-laden bullpen finished 22nd in ERA (4.40), up four spots from 2016, and veteran right-handers Brandon Kintzler (traded on July 31) and Matt Belisle went a combined 37 for 43 (86 percent) in save chances while in the closer role. That wasn’t enough to keep the Twins’ front office from seeking an upgrade.

Under Allen, the Twins churned through a club-record 36 pitchers (16 starters) but still managed to improve 10 spots in earned-run average (4.60, 19th) and had the fourth-best walk rate (7.8 percent).

Along with staff ace Ervin Santana, a 16-game winner for the first time since 2010, Kintzler gave the Twins’ pitching staff two representatives at the All-Star Game in Miami this July. That marked the first time since 2006 (Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano) that the Twins had more than one pitcher selected as all-stars.

“To accomplish what we did this year and do it with the guys we did, I’m thrilled to death,”  Allen said. “A lot of guys stepped up and did a wonderful job. I have nothing but admiration and total respect for them. Nobody gave those guys a chance coming out of spring training. This is always going to be a special group in my heart.”.

While Molitor’s new salary was not immediately known, it reportedly would be less than the estimated $2 million per season enjoyed by predecessor Ron Gardenhire, who was fired after the 2014 season and now serves as bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Under Molitor, the Twins ended a seven-year postseason drought that had ranked as the sixth-longest active streak. The Seattle Mariners, who employed Molitor as their hitting coach in 2004 and last reached the postseason in 2001, have the longest active drought.

“He’s extremely baseball smart,” Twins catcher Chris Gimenez said of Molitor last week. “He’s in the hall of fame for a reason. Yeah, he was a great player, but you have to think the game to do what he did on the field. I see it constantly. He’s very much ahead of the game. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out necessarily the way you draw it up, but I think for the most part I’d take him any day of the week.”

Along with Tom Kelly and Gardenhire, Molitor is one of just three managers for the Twins over the past three-plus decades, dating to late in the 1986 season. Molitor’s first team won 83 games in 2015, then slumped to a Minnesota-worst 103 losses last year before rebounding to go 85-77 this year.

The 26-win improvement was the biggest in Twins history. After compiling a negative run differential for much of the season, the Twins rallied late to finish at plus-27 but still outperformed their expected Pythagorean record by two wins, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Molitor became the first hall of fame player to manage a team in the postseason since Bob Lemon took the 1981 Yankees to the World Series.

Coming off a devastating sophomore campaign, Molitor went along with a pair of difficult dismissals from his original staff: hitting coach and former Twins World Series winner Tom Brunansky and first-base/outfield coach Butch Davis. People with direct knowledge said Molitor hoped to bring back his full coaching staff in 2018, but it was not immediately known whether that was part of the agreement.

Former Chicago Cubs hitting coach James Rowson was brought in from the New York Yankees’ minor-league system and helped the youthful Twins lineup improve almost across the board. The Twins went from 16th to seventh in runs (815) and 22nd to seventh in on-base percentage (.334).

Major league coach Jeff Pickler and first-base coach Jeff Smith were the other two additions to the 2017 staff. Rowson, Pickler and Guardado were already signed through 2018.

MOLITOR’S RECORD >

Paul Molitor is 227-259 in three seasons managing the Twins:

Year     W-L

2015   83-79

2016   59-103

2017   85-77

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