by JDCam 10.04.14
The Twins released long time manager Ron Gardenhire on Monday bringing his 13 year tenure with the Twins to a disappointing conclusion. The uber-loyal Twins will now be looking for only their third manager since the 1986 season. In his career with the Twins, Gardy won the AL Central 6 times. He struggled more recently however, posting 90+ losses in each of the last four seasons. For the Twins part their managerial change is, I feel, not at all about personnel and pleasingly for Twins fans, much more about the culture of the franchise.
ESPN guru Tim Kurkjian reported the story quoting Gardenhire as ‘fiery’ and described him as an ‘affable everyman who turned the perennial AL doormat into a six time division champion.’ Those sentiments ring of truth but also gnaw at Twins fans who have seen the exit for Gardy coming for some time.
Gardenhire certainly did have his share of success with the Twins building his teams on a solid generation of minor league talent including Tori Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer and having the bonus of acquiring cornerstones by trade including Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano and outstanding organizational additions like rule 5 pickup And two time Cy Young winner Johan Santana. Gardenhire however was never able to replicate the regular season success in post season. In his 6 post-season appearances Gardy’s Twins managed just one series win, in 2002 before losing to the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels (or whatever they were called that year). In those 6 series losses the Twins only won 3 games! To be fair the Twins faced several of the great Yankee teams of the early 2000s. The gulf in class was unfortunately matched by a gulf in belonging.
As a Twins fan, the team always seemed to have a ‘happy to be here’ attitude. Their first post-season opponent always seemed like the logical last stop, the Twins an annoying irritation along the way, the most obvious discrepancy between the teams the massive gulf in class in starting pitching. While Gardenhire himself WAS a fiery character, always going to bat for his team and receiving more than his fair share of ejections, he failed to instill that same passion and heart in his players. The Twins never seemed like they thought or believed they would beat the Yankees in those early 2000s, they just seemed to be making up numbers. I wanted to see the same passion from the players that Gardy always seemed to exhibit, something like this;
OK, that was an exaggeration but still. Gardy’s Twins always seemed to somehow take on and embody that most famous of North Star state idiosyncrasies, ‘Minnesota Nice’. Too nice to take the series too far or make it too competitive turned the Twins became the underachieving also-rans of the early 2000s playoffs.
Gardenhire’s own reaction to his dismissal is perhaps the MOST astounding part of this whole story. When speaking at the Twins press conference he stated that he was ‘completely fine with this’. Gardenhire is even quoted as saying ‘I think this is the right thing’. If ever there was an indication that a change in voice was needed, this was it! If you don’t think you should still have your job Gardy, why should I? Is this the voice and message of the manager whose job it was to get his team prepared, particularly mentally to face a Yankee franchise year after year that at worst could be described as dominant and at best dynastic? No wonder we got waxed every year! OK, maybe a little far but come on?! Despite a number of players expressing their displeasure and disappointment at the axing of Gardy, it may be a case of having never heard another voice as young pieces like Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have known no other as their manager.
Looking once again at those 6 playoff efforts the Twins obvious issue was their lack of depth at starting pitching. Now at the beginning of the 2014 playoffs every self-respecting sport blog and website immediately begins ranking contenders various pieces, up first, starting pitching. You DO NOT win in the post season with poor starting pitching. Looking at the two years the Twins had their strongest team pitching, 2004 (27.6 combined WAR) and 2006 (23 combined WAR). In both years the Twins had a bonafide ace in Santana (who incidentally contributed (between ¼ to 1/3 of the team WAR alone). In ’04 after Santana took game one in New York, the Twins went to reliable number 2 Brad Radke before turning to Carlos Silva in game 3. In ’06 Twins again began with Santana before turning to Boof Bonser of the famous porn-stache in game two (yikes). Did Terry Ryan and the mega rich Pohlad family truly set up Gardy for a solid post-season run with a truly deep and competitive rotation? I don’t think so.
Simply put, even with their best pitching the Twins rotation was never enough. After Santana was traded to the Mets the Twins struggled to their moderate successes in spite of their pitching. With the exception of Francisco Liriano, whose incredible rookie season was lost to Tommy John in 2006 and left Twins asking what might have been, the Twins got by with a number of pitch to contact ground ball specialists such as Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and the most successful of the bunch, Carl Pavano. This is where the Twins spiral into mediocrity and subsequently woefulness really began.
Timing has not been on Gardenhire’s side in the last few years. The Twins have quietly amassed one of the best farms systems in baseball over the last few years (both through drafting and trades), more recently balancing out their typically outfield heavy prospect family with a slew of high end arms, untypically high velocity, high strikeout arms including Alex Meyer, JJ Berrios, Kohl Stewart and September debutant Trevor May as well as bullpen arms like Nick Burdi. Combined with uber-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as well as emergent rookies like Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana the future looks much rosier in Minnesota, unfortunately for Gardenhire he won’t be the one steering the ship anymore. While Gardenhire certainly has a legacy to be proud of in Minnesota, Tom Kelly set Twins fans up with almost impossibly lofty expectations for post-season achievement. While the Twins organization has a ton to thank Ron Gardenhire for, he never quite hit the lofty heights of his predecessor. 6 AL Central championships was an impressive achievement, but one that will forever be slightly marred in the eyes of Twins fans by the uncompetitive nature of their team in the post season, as well as the last four seasons of stagnantly low quality baseball.