Gardenhire leaves difficult task for Twins' next manager
Minnesota continues to be a team in transition; Hall of Famer Molitor a candidate
Obviously, the Twins couldn't go on like this. And just as obviously, Ron Gardenhire was not/is not the only thing standing between them and a return to top-of-the-American-League-Central status.
The Twins are a team in transition, and they have been for some time. General manager Terry Ryan said, "You can't think we're going to keep losing 90 games and give out extensions." And he said that before the 2013 season, before the Twins lost 96 games (as they had in '12) and, yes, before they gave Gardenhire an extension. A 92-loss '14 season followed, and now Gardenhire, one of the game's truly good guys, is gone.
"I'm out of here because we didn't win," Gardenhire told reporters Monday. "That's what it gets down to in baseball. That's what it should get down to -- you have to win on the field. These last four years have been tough on us."
Truth is, it would have surprised exactly no one if Gardenhire would have relieved himself of his duties. Four years of 92 losses or more is an eternity in baseball. The only two managers in history to lead the same team to four straight 90-plus-loss seasons and come back for more are Connie Mack and Gardenhire's predecessor, Tom Kelly -- and Mack owned the team, so that should hardly count.
Gardenhire would have been forgiven if he simply admitted he'd had enough.
Anyway, the specifics behind the change don't matter nearly as much as the bottom line, which is that whoever inherits this club -- and former Twins Paul Molitor (who just wrapped up his first season on Gardy's staff), Terry Steinbach (Gardy's bench coach) and Doug Mientkiewicz (who did an excellent job at Class A Advanced Fort Myers this summer) are all possibilities -- has his work cut out for him.
But no one has more work ahead than Ryan, a respected leader who, nevertheless, would probably be the first to acknowledge he's on deck for dismissal if the Twins don't start showing some real improvement soon.
"We've got some issues here," Ryan said earlier this month, "and I take accountability for about 98 percent of it."
This was a truly tough year for the Twins, and not just because of what transpired at the Major League level.
Minnesota entered the calendar year touting two of the most highly regarded prospects in the game -- third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton. Together, they logged exactly 137 plate appearances, all by Buxton. He was limited by wrist injuries and then a concussion. Sano, meanwhile, sustained an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery during Spring Training.
As Sano progresses with baseball activities and Buxton prepares to take part in the Arizona Fall League, the Twins can hold out hope that they'll make some sort of impact at the big league level next year. But there's no question they both lost essentially a season's worth of precious development time.
Beyond that, this was a discouraging year for second base prospect Eddie Rosario, a pure hitter who didn't hit much in his transition to Double-A. Alex Meyer, a top pitching prospect acquired in the Denard Span trade, had a shoulder flare-up near season's end at Triple-A Rochester, a discouraging development for a guy who missed two months of '13 with a minor shoulder injury.
That's what was going on down below the surface. On the Major League squad, the revamped rotation in which Ryan heavily invested turned in another collective ERA over 5.00, even in spite of Phil Hughes turning up as the best bargain signing in baseball and turning in the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the modern era.
Ricky Nolasco was a $49 million mess, and midseason acquisition Tommy Milone, who had actually appeared to be a sneaky-good pickup, was no better. Trevor May, another highly regarded arm, made his Major League debut and turned in a 7.88 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts), with a 1.77 WHIP.
Behind them, Minnesota played some of the worst defense in baseball, and this actually might have been the final blow to Gardenhire's security. Twins players loved Gardy, loved how he still came to work with enthusiasm and energy even in Year 4 of the aftermath of a once-great team. But on the whole, they didn't play particularly well for him.
Developmental victories have, unfortunately, been few and far between for the Twins in recent years, and this, too, is a reason Gardenhire's 13-year tenure came to a close. The new guy, though, will be inheriting some hope in the form of Kennys Vargas, whose pure power was a beautiful sight to behold in the season's last two months, and in Danny Santana, whose rookie hitting acumen was surprisingly strong and who will remain an option at two premium defensive positions -- center field and shortstop. Oswaldo Arcia has upside from the power perspective, and Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have become offensive cornerstones on a club that had its best runs-per-game output since 2010.
All this, despite a pedestrian season from veritable captain Joe Mauer, whose first full season at first base did not provide the uptick in health and production that the Twins envisioned. Here, again, they have to hope things improve in 2015.
The aforementioned internal candidates could all step in and help this club, and Molitor is probably the people's choice by virtue of his Hall of Fame career, the respect he'd command in the clubhouse and the insight and savvy he'd bring to the dugout. The Twins would be wise to interview an external candidate like Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, whose work with young players is well-regarded and whose managerial shot is long overdue. Ultimately, though, the hunch here and elsewhere is that Molitor will be the guy, if he's so inclined.
Again, though, the managerial spot is secondary to the personnel moves. Ryan made a very shrewd, buy-low signing with Hughes, and there is a belief that the Twins will explore the free-agent avenue for starting help yet again. The rise of the Royals, Terry Francona's work with the Indians and Jose Abreu's arrival on the South Side have all conspired to make the AL Central a deepened division beyond the Tigers' four-year reign at the top. The Twins, right now, look further away than any of those clubs, but there are pieces to work with here.
It's a shame Gardenhire won't be around to see them come together. But after the way the last four years played out, he's probably seen enough.