The paradox of being a major league manager on a losing team, Tom Kelly says, is that by the time a new season starts, nobody knows better the level of talent assembled on the roster. And nobody is more willing to believe that this assessment is wrong.
"When you're a manager, the glass is always half-full. I got on my wife about that the other day -- you've got to try to see how things can get better," the former Twins manager joked. "You've got to be willing to let your players surprise you, because each day you go to work to make them better. And it happens all the time -- some of them get better."
That's one of the secrets to surviving a few rough seasons, as Kelly did in the late 1990s, when the transition from a championship team to a next-generation contender crash-landed with eight straight last-place or next-to-last finishes. And it's a mindset, Kelly says, for which his successor, Ron Gardenhire, is particularly suited.
"I don't worry about Ronnie, because he looks forward to the challenge. He enjoys them," Kelly said. "He thrives on challenges."
He came to the right place, then. Because "thrive" is not a word easily attached to the past two Twins seasons, nor to the widespread assumptions about the 2013 team, which gathers this week in Fort Myers, Fla., to open spring training. In many ways, from his coaching staff to his job security to an unprecedented number of mysteries about who will play and where, 2013 shapes up as unlike any of Gardenhire's 11 previous seasons as manager.
The eight winning records and six postseason appearances in Gardenhire's first nine seasons have been marred by 195 losses over the past two seasons, the product of an all-around collapse. The Twins last year allowed 832 runs, more than in any season since 2000, and you have to go back four decades, to 1972-73, to find a two-year (non-strike) period in which Minnesota scored fewer than the 1,320 runs the Twins have managed with back-to-back last-place finishes.
And this year? The team Gardenhire greets won't include starting outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere, traded over the winter for a trio of pitchers, two of whom will spend the season in the minor leagues. It doesn't have bankable solutions in center field or second base; is gambling on the big league readiness of youngsters at shortstop, third base and right field, and depends heavily on cross-your-fingers newcomers in the starting rotation. All while assuming health and All-Star production from the team's veteran stars.
Sunny disposition, do your stuff.
"Sure, it's possible. We made some changes, some tough decisions, but we brought in some guys who can help us, too," Gardenhire said, citing pitching such pickups as Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey and Vance Worley. "It hasn't been very good baseball the past couple of years, but everything that went wrong is fixable. Look at Baltimore and Oakland [teams that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs last season] -- when it clicks, you play with confidence and it can snowball."
Shakeup, no extension
But what if the snowball turns out to be an avalanche instead? Gardenhire discovered last October that 2013 will be different, one way or another. First, his coaching staff, virtually intact for his 11-year tenure, was shaken up, with three coaches fired and the survivors (aside from pitching coach Rick Anderson) assuming different duties.
And his contract, routinely extended by two years in 2006, 2008 and 2010? It's not being touched this time, and will expire at the end of the season. At 55, and with more victories than any Twins manager but Kelly, Gardenhire must prove his worth once more.
"Gardy understands the business. He's accountable," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "When I told him we weren't going to extend him, his immediate response was, 'I don't deserve it.'"
Beyond just the guaranteed salary, though, the lack of a long-term contract is an unmistakable signal: The organization isn't sure you should keep your job.
"I don't even worry about that. Really, I don't," Gardenhire said. "I laugh about it. You know what, you should be held accountable, year by year. I have no problem with that. A lot of guys go year-to-year."
He's right about that. Gardenhire is one of more than a dozen managers with no contractual guarantee beyond this season, a situation that would seem to ramp up the pressure to win. In the Twins' case, that's true, Ryan said of his manager -- within reason.
"Progress, that's all. Heading in the right direction. Getting this thing turned around again," Ryan said of how Gardenhire will be evaluated. "You can't just put a number on it. It's not .500 or the playoffs -- it's 'Are we improving? Are things beginning to fall into place?'"
Mostly, it means integrating the minor league products into the major league lineup, making Chris Parmelee comfortable in right field, teaching Aaron Hicks to be a big league center fielder, uncovering a workable starting rotation. This team in transition plays to Gardenhire's strength, the Twins believe, because while he can be loyal to veterans and partial to steady fielders, he's also willing to give opportunities to young players.
"You don't have to sell Gardy much to take a chance. He's not afraid to put you out there every day," said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president for player personnel. "But over a few weeks or a month or two, you eventually have to do something. In Hicks' case, he's at a specialized position [center field], and he can save runs out there. You do that, and you'll get a longer chance to adjust and improve."
Setting the right tone
The past two seasons have tested Gardenhire's patience and restraint, Kelly said, but the former manager still admires the way his successor manages a clubhouse.
"He runs the ship and doesn't panic. He knows when to get loud, and he knows when to be quiet," Kelly said. "Sometimes players get depressed, or tired of it. It's no fun when you get behind most nights, but he kept them plugging away, running balls out, making plays. You keep doing that, and things get better. And I think they will."
And if not? Gardenhire isn't in denial about what could happen the next time he's evaluated by his superiors.
In a strange way, though, for such a competitive personality -- perhaps you've witnessed Gardenhire protest an umpire's decision -- the manager sounds entirely at peace with the notion that this could be his final spring training with the Twins.
"I've managed, what, 11 years?" he said. "It's been a great opportunity. ... Whatever happens, I'll be fine."