The Twins, they do things differently. One veteran player still can’t believe that the team essentially fired bench coach Scott Ulger and hitting coach Joe Vavra at the end of last season … then turned around and made Ulger the first-base coach and Vavra the third-base coach.
Hey, this is an outfit that fired Bill Smith as general manager after the 2011 season … then rehired him as a special assistant one month later.
With most organizations, when you’re gone, you’re gone. But the Twins are more loyal than most organizations, which is why their refusal to award manager Ron Gardenhire a contract extension is so curious.
The party line, one embraced by even Gardenhire as he enters the final year of his current deal, is that a manager doesn’t merit an extension coming off back-to-back seasons of 99 and 96 losses. Fair enough, except for one thing: The team’s decline isn’t Gardenhire’s fault, and another season of 95-plus losses — which is entirely possible — won’t be his fault, either.
No, the decline is attributable to a number of factors — a failure to develop pitching, injuries to catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, the defections of key relievers after the 2010 season, the losses of high-character types such as outfielder Michael Cuddyer.
So, what happens if the Twins stumble again? Do they fire Gardenhire because, well, someone has to be accountable? That, after all, is the message the team sent when it allowed Gardenhire to become a lame duck and dismissed or re-assigned every coach but pitching coach Rick Anderson
GM Terry Ryan, in an interview with Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, recently said that he and Gardenhire are “joined at the hip.” What does that mean? Another disappointing season, and both of them are gone?
Such a decision, which would be the call of ownership, would be absurdly short-sighted — particularly at a time when the Twins, with help from two trades that Ryan made this offseason, finally show signs of reversing course.
It’s not going to happen in 2013, not with a rotation fronted by lefty Scott Diamond, who will open the season on the DL, and righties Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley and Kevin Correia. But there is ample young talent coming, starting with Aaron Hicks, who has all but won the center-field job.
Start with the pitchers.
Right-hander Kyle Gibson is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Righty Alex Meyer was the return for center fielder Denard Span; Worley and Trevor May for outfielder Ben Revere. A number of other pitchers — righty Michael Tonkin, righty J.O. Berrios — also qualify as legitimate prospects.
In most of those cases, we’re not talking about modestly sized, low-velocity strike-throwers in the traditional Twins mold. We’re talking about arms, big arms, the kind that have been missing in Minnesota for too long.
“It was kind of amazing when we went out with just pitchers and catchers at the start of spring training,” Gardenhire said. “We put one group together and the average size was 6-3, 6-4, even taller. You’re looking up at pitchers and going, ‘Wow, this could be entertaining.’ Then watching them grab the ball and throw it on a (downward) angle, that was fun. That was a lot of fun.”
And the Twins’ young position players might be even more intriguing.
Both third baseman Miguel Sano and outfielder Byron Buxton rank among the game’s top 10 prospects, according to some analysts. Outfielder Oswaldo Arcia usually is listed among the top 50. Second baseman/outfielder Eddie Rosario is yet another youngster with significant promise.
I mentioned to Gardenhire recently that it might be a good thing to be the Twins’ manager in two or three years, seeing as how that guy is going to look awfully smart.
“That would be a good thing for anybody — especially me,” he said, chuckling.
Gardenhire, 55, is not going to lobby on his own behalf — it’s not his style, and he actually seems to believe that he doesn’t merit anything more than lame-duck status, even though he led the Twins to the postseason six times in a nine-year stretch from 2002 to ’10.
It would be one thing if the team needed a new voice — the Red Sox’s rationale, however dubious, for parting with Terry Francona after the 2011 season. But such is not the case with the Twins. Gardenhire’s greatest strength is the way he communicates with players.
Even the Baseball Prospectus annual, a sabermetric publication that in the past tended to dismiss intangibles, acknowledged that while Gardenhire is not “some kind of tactical genius,” he “excels in the clubhouse, where he remains popular and has successfully minimized squabbles among players” and “deserves recognition for that.”
I don’t want to be too hard on the Twins — too often people in baseball lack accountability, so it’s difficult to criticize a club for holding employees responsible. On the other hand, this is all sort of silly. The Twins are foolish to even risk Gardenhire becoming a free agent, particularly when so many managers are entering the final years of contracts.
Such an outcome still seems far-fetched, given Gardenhire’s popularity in the Twin Cities. But know this: If the Twins allowed Gardenhire to depart, he’d probably be unemployed for about 10 minutes. And they’d probably spend 10 years trying to find another like him.